In Arizona, McCain's tactics seen as power plays

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 12/13/99

''...I was not a person to suffer slights lightly.'' - Senator John McCain, writing about his childhood in his best-selling autobiography, ''Faith of My Fathers.''

PHOENIX - Eight years later, former mayor Paul Johnson still shudders at the memory of his run-in with Senator John McCain.

The two had disagreed on a federal land issue. It seemed to Johnson a minor thing, an understandable dispute between politicians with different interests. But then he attended a 1991 meeting on the matter in Washington with McCain and other Arizona officeholders and learned that the senator, and would-be president, is not a man to stifle a grudge.

When it was his turn to speak, McCain shouted him down.

''Wait a minute, get a tape recorder. It's best to get a liar on tape,'' McCain said, as the former mayor recalls it. When the meeting ended, McCain blocked his exit in an effort to continue the argument, though Johnson, at 6-foot-7, stands a head taller.

''It gives me goose bumps to think about what he did for the country,'' said Johnson, adding that he still admires the former Vietnam POW who is now running for president. ''But after two years as mayor, all I could think of was how to get out of his cross hairs. To him, there are only two kinds of people, those on his side and those who are his enemies.''

Last week, McCain was the subject of Time magazine's cover story. His extraordinary courage during 5 1/2 years in North Vietnamese captivity and his witty, telegenic, and often self-deprecating denunciations of governmental corruption have struck a chord with voters, most notably in New Hampshire. And many reporters are taken with his unscripted style. Suddenly, a party that thought Texan George W. Bush had a vise-like grip on the GOP nomination is starting to consider McCain as a viable option.

But here in Arizona, some prominent Republicans echo the concerns of the former Democratic mayor. Recent public notice about McCain's temper, they believe, has obscured a larger issue voters ought to ponder when they measure him against the demands of the Oval Office: It is not so much the temper, they say, but what prompts him to lose it: His frequent unwillingness to accommodate dissenting views, even those of average citizens; his sometimes bullying insistence that other politicians do his bidding; and his tendency to treat those who disagree with him as disloyal.

It is, perhaps, the central irony in the McCain story: A man who built his political reputation around a maverick disdain for the way things are done in Washington - and a willingness to speak out against settled interests, including those of his own party - finds it hard to stomach many challenges to his view of how things should be done back home.

For example:

Former attorney general Grant Woods, once so close to McCain that he is godfather to one of his children, no longer talks to him, embittered by what he says were McCain's efforts to dictate how he ran his office. Most memorable: A belligerent McCain, Woods said, twice upbraided him for investigating allegations against Governor Fife Symington, a McCain ally whose office Woods was investigating for bid-rigging and who was later convicted of fraudulent business practices. McCain's overtures, in Woods's view, bordered on being improper.

In 1993, McCain lost a battle against Phoenix and its Sky Harbor Airport when his effort to win support for a new regional airport was stymied. Almost immediately, McCain demanded two federal investigations of the city airport, prompting charges he was using his power to get back at his opponents.

In 1994, McCain's unswerving loyalty to an embattled Symington - and his bare-knuckle treatment of prominent Republicans who didn't share his loyalty - opened wounds in the state party that have yet to heal. Symington's GOP challenger, among others, got a tongue-lashing and what amounted to a threat from a top McCain adviser. Some prominent Republicans who bucked Symington received tax audit notices from the state, though there is no evidence McCain was aware of the notices.

The spotlight on McCain's sometimes acrimonious dealings with Arizona Republicans intensified when his feud with Governor Jane Dee Hull recently broke into the open. Hull said heavy-handed treatment of her by McCain and his staff included a demand that she fire her own chief of staff. Hull is supporting Bush.

''He treats Jane Hull the way he treats a lot of people,'' one of Hull's advisers said. ''The fact is, the senator gets very heated about things. He's a control freak.''

McCain, in an interview, insisted that the home state sniping is restricted to a tiny number of party members in league with ''my opponents,'' an apparent reference to the Bush campaign. He said the assertions by Woods and Hull are unfounded, and McCain's spokeswoman, Nancy Ives, said Johnson's account of the 1991 meeting was false, although she said it was true that the senator had ''strongly disagreed'' with the then-mayor.

''If I was known as someone who clamped down, was divisive, was dictatorial, I wouldn't have the highest approval ratings in my state,'' said McCain, who has not had a primary opponent, or even a serious general election opponent, since 1982. ''I've had disagreements from time to time with people, but I am incredibly proud of the intense loyalty that has been displayed toward me by thousands of Republicans all over the state.''

William D. McInturff, a Massachusetts native who is the McCain campaign pollster, said much of the rancor can be attributed to the everyday ''bump and grind'' of politics. Most of the actions attributed to McCain and his aides, he said, would be considered tame if they occurred in Massachusetts.

But even some of McCain's supporters, among them politicians whose endorsement of his candidacy is prompted in part by fear of his temper, say they wish the underlying discontent could be so simply explained away.

''In a crisis, he's the calmest person in the room,'' said Lisa Graham Keegan, the elected state superintendent of public instruction, who supports McCain. But Keegan, who has experienced McCain's anger, added, ''When he loses it, it's over the small stuff. It's almost as if there's a magic word that no one knows, but that when someone says it, it sets him off.''

Over the years, unfavorable news coverage has sometimes provoked McCain; he has publicly castigated reporters as ''liars'' and ''idiots.''

Even bystanders say they have been browbeaten by McCain: Richard Silverman, director of the Salt River Project, an Arizona utility, was berated by McCain in the Senate dining room in 1994 after his daughter, Amy Silverman, wrote unflattering pieces about McCain for the Phoenix New Times, a weekly. Although McCain's recollection of the incident was much more benign than the version told to the Globe by an eyewitness, McCain nonetheless sent Silverman a letter of apology.

''There are a lot of those letters floating around,'' one of the senator's former aides said.

A quest for control

In a state where the politeness of everyday citizens can be as refreshing as the dry desert air, the intensity and pugnaciousness of McCain's involvement in state politics has been extraordinary, particularly for a US senator. By most accounts, McCain has worked hard to wrest control of the party away from social issues conservatives - while seeking to increase his own power at the same time.

The state's senior senator even supports candidates in city council races, and Republicans seeking legislative seats - sometimes in primary fights against other Republicans. McCain's loyalty to his friends has sometimes made him enemies. Moreover, some elected officials who have crossed McCain have attracted opponents encouraged by McCain and his aides.

Six years ago, McCain and his longtime aide, Wes Gullett, used pressure tactics in a fruitless attempt to head off a primary challenge against Symington, who was operating under an ethical cloud at the time because of past business dealings.

In 1994, Symington's GOP critics were ostracized. Symington's GOP challenger, Barbara Barrett, received a stern dressing-down from both men, and by several accounts, was threatened with political retaliation. Another Republican officeholder, Sandra Dowling, received the same treatment - and also a McCain-backed primary opponent in 1996.

McCain said he's never threatened anyone. But Gullett, who was Symington's chief of staff at the time, hinted that his own treatment of Barrett was not so gentle.

''I didn't intend to threaten her, although she was mightily offended,'' Gullett said. ''When I have a direct conversation with people, they know they have had a direct conversation with me.''

Another official who chose a candidate other than Symington, Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza, expected to run unopposed for mayor in 1995. But Thelda Williams, who entered the race against him, said she did so because McCain and Symington asked her to. ''They wanted to send Skip a message,'' Williams said.

Against that divisive backdrop, some prominent Republicans who supported Barrett and Democratic nominee Eddie Basha received tax audit notices from the state Revenue Department, only to be told later that the notices had been sent in error, according to several Republicans. Rick DeGraw, who ran Basha's campaign, said that among the Basha supporters who received similar notices was Grant Woods's father, contractor Joe Woods. The former attorney general confirmed these accounts.

After Symington's 1996 indictment, Keegan became the first prominent elected Republican to call for his resignation. For that stance against Symington, she said, she incurred McCain's wrath.

She also soon received a state tax audit notice. ''If you made the governor uncomfortable, you ended up with a tax audit notice. It was not a coincidence,'' she said.

Attempts to reach Symington, whose conviction was later overturned and remains on appeal, were unavailing. McCain and Gullett said they were unaware of the audit notices. If anything like that occurred, McCain said, prosecutors should investigate.

Despite the recollection of others, McCain said he played a minimal role in the 1994 governor's race. He was, he said, merely trying to avoid a split in the party and sought to dissuade Barrett from running only because party officials asked him to.

Request for audits

For the Phoenix officials who in 1993 successfully battled McCain's effort to have a new regional airport built between Phoenix and Tucson, a different sort of audit was in order.

Two months after he pulled out of the fight, McCain asked the US Department of Transportation to investigate leases at the city-run Sky Harbor airport. He also asked the Federal Aviation Administration to look into public safety costs at Sky Harbor. When the first audit raised questions about low lease rates, McCain suggested that federal funds for a third runway might be jeopardized unless the city took corrective action.

City and airport officials accused McCain of retaliating. The senator denied doing so, but the Arizona Gazette, which consistently endorsed the senator, editorialized that McCain's actions hinted at a ''petty, mean vendetta.''

''The senator's request for the investigations was in retaliation for our opposition to the regional airport, there's no question about it,'' recalled Ed Korrick, who was a member of the airport's advisory board in 1993. ''He's been upset with a lot of Phoenix mayors: They don't do what he wants.''

Not so Mayor Rimsza: He recently endorsed McCain, saying in an interview that he did so because ''you don't embarrass an Arizonan when he's up against a Texan. We're family.''

But Republicans who have talked with Rimsza said fear of McCain helped make up his mind. He wants passage of a city referendum to increase the sales tax to fund public transit, and sought insurance that McCain would not obstruct the measure.

Former attorney general Woods, by his own account, was one official who refused to buckle. McCain was his mentor. Woods was McCain's first top assistant when he went to Congress. Yet when Woods was elected attorney general in 1990, it did not take long for the relationship to deteriorate.

Woods said McCain called him twice and objected ''in his inimitable style'' that his office was investigating Symington. ''I expected he would understand it was my job. He took it more as disloyalty,'' Woods said. ''He's from a military background, and really believes in a pecking order. In the military, you salute your superiors, regardless of the circumstances.''

Woods said McCain's approach ''wasn't appropriate,'' although McCain did not ask him to drop the inquiry. He added: ''We stopped the conversation short of him interfering unethically.''

McCain said Woods's account is baseless. Rather, as McCain recalls it, their estrangement is due partly to Woods's refusal to accept McCain's solution to an Indian gaming dispute.

''I said I think you ought to approach the Indian gaming issue this way, and why don't you do that?'' McCain said. ''And he said to me, I quote, `That's a stupid idea.' I hung up the phone and we had no further conversations.''

The combination of McCain's outsized presence and the aggressive tendencies of his Arizona staff has left some GOP stalwarts here intimidated. But it has also at times led to McCain being blamed for the tough handiwork of aides, and, it appears, to some lore about McCain's hot-tempered intrusiveness that doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

One such case concerns state Representative Karen Johnson, a strident social issues conservative, who said in an interview last week that before she won political office McCain sought to have her sacked from three public sector jobs over several years.

But when the Globe interviewed her former superiors, all of them said they had never been contacted by McCain about her.

''There's no question that John McCain has a temper. I've seen it. And Republicans fear him,'' said David S. Schweickert, who employed Johnson when he was the state Senate GOP whip. ''But some of his key staff have always had too much free rein, and they play politics pretty rough. So if it rains on your wedding day, they get blamed.''

`He can be provoked'

Earlier this year, McCain and US Representative Jim Kolbe were in a Phoenix coffeehouse when a woman approached McCain and told him she thought McCain and other senators who voted to convict President Clinton were wrong.

Eschewing the tactful reply that is second nature to most politicians, McCain replied: ''You think lying under oath is OK? You think obstruction of justice is OK?'' When the woman said she was just expressing herself as a constituent, McCain said: ''Well, I've got 4 million other constituents. And they don't think lying under oath and obstructing justice is OK.''

''That's part of John's personality. He can be provoked,'' said Mike Hellon, a member of the Republican National Committee from Tucson and a friend of McCain. ''But where John McCain has been in life and what he has done for the state and the country are so remarkable that a lot of people, myself included, look right past a lot of things we would find annoying in others.''

Indeed, there is little turnover in McCain's staff, which is devoted to him. Interns in his office call him John: He insists on it. Most often, McCain is uncommonly cheerful.

And he is also known for compassion and for surprising acts of forgiveness: It was McCain, unnoticed for months, who kept a regular vigil at the deathbed of former Arizona congressman Morris K. Udall, a Democrat. Long before that, McCain reached across a deep ideological chasm to forge a friendship with David Ifshin, whose antiwar speech from Hanoi in 1970 was broadcast into the prison cell where McCain lay, weak from the beatings by his captors.

When Ifshin died of cancer at age 47 in 1996, McCain was among those who eulogized him. From his friend David, McCain said, ''I learned the futility of looking back in anger.''

Measured against that side of McCain, his 1991 telephone call to Dianne Smith, then a 63-year-old Phoenix widow, seems inexplicable. As she recalled it last week, Smith was upset when McCain challenged Anita Hill's credibility before her testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

So Smith wrote her first-ever letter to a public official, a short handwritten note to McCain expressing her annoyance at what he had said. ''I didn't think it was rude or impolite,'' Smith said. ''I mailed it and forgot about it.''

About two weeks later, Smith's phone rang. It was McCain. For several minutes, she said, McCain ''ranted on and on about what a nerve I had to question his integrity. He was shouting, he was mad. I was absolutely taken aback. It didn't make sense. I wasn't somebody important.

''I just listened. It was such an experience to have a US senator yelling at me on the phone,'' she said. When McCain finished shouting, she said, he simply hung up.

Asked about the call, McCain said it never happened. Besides, he said, he never challenged Hill's credibility. But a search of news archives shows that he did - just as Smith remembered it, before Hill testified.

Since McCain's temper became an issue in the campaign, he and his aides have sought to recast his temper as his passion for issues, and his anger as frustration with government waste and corruption. And in interviews, supporters sometimes use euphemisms to describe behavior that baffles many otherwise admiring Republicans.

''John gets stuff done by butting heads,'' said McInturff, the campaign pollster. State Senator Marc Spitzer said McCain ''is not timorous. When he gets involved in Arizona politics, sometimes he goes overboard.''

But McCain's supporters dismiss the notion that his temper is in any way disqualifying. Representative Kolbe, among others, sees it as a plus, saying, ''His impatience with the way things are may be exactly what voters are looking for in a president.''

Added Gullett, as much McCain's Arizona alter ego as anyone: ''Every day when he wakes up, he knows he shouldn't be alive. So he doesn't want it written on his tombstone, `He's a wonderful, sweet man.' He wants it to read, `He did great things.'''