McCain's Temperament Shaped By Vietnam, Senate In a presidential election, candidates spar about the issues. But more often, voters pick a president based on his character. McCain's has been shaped by his military family, Vietnam and his years as a senator.
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McCain's Temperament Shaped By Vietnam, Senate

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McCain's Temperament Shaped By Vietnam, Senate

McCain's Temperament Shaped By Vietnam, Senate

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. It has been a wild day in the presidential race. John McCain announced that he plans to put his campaign on hold and return to Washington to work on a bipartisan deal to resolve the financial crisis, and he called for this Friday's presidential debate to be postponed. Barack Obama made a statement later today. He said he had called McCain earlier to talk about the financial crisis, and they set in motion plans to issue a joint statement about it. But he argued the debate should go on as planned. He said the American people need to hear from the candidates, since one of them will inherit the current problems as president. In a few minutes, we'll hear more about all this from NPR's Mara Liasson.

NORRIS: First, before that story broke, Mara was reporting on two stories about the candidates' temperaments. And this latest move on McCain's part underscores one aspect of his temperament and his leadership style. Tomorrow, we'll hear about Barack Obama's temperament. But today, first, the Republican candidate.

MARA LIASSON: There's no doubt about how John McCain would like to be seen: just like his passionate presidential hero Theodore Roosevelt, or the way he describes his fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater, whose Senate seat McCain now holds.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Nominee): He was irascible and principled, fiercely independent and deeply patriotic. He was his own man always and his country's loyal servant.

LIASSON: McCain's own temperament has been dissected by authors, political analysts, McCain's political opponents and McCain himself, who has recounted how he started out as a cocky, rebellious Navy flyer who proudly collected hundreds of demerits at the Naval Academy.

Senator MCCAIN: As a young man, I would respond aggressively and sometimes irresponsibly to anyone whom I perceived to have questioned my sense of honor and self-respect. Those responses often got me in a fair amount of trouble earlier in life.

LIASSON: But in the second half of McCain's well-known narrative, he finds the true meaning of honor and a calling greater than his own self-glory when he's captured and tortured for five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war.

Senator MCCAIN: I once thought I was man enough for almost any confrontation. In prison, I discovered I was not. I tried to use every personal resource I had to confound my captors, and it wasn't enough in the end. But when I had reached the limit of my endurance, the men I had the honor of serving with picked me up, set me right, and sent me back into the fight. I became dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever been before. And I am a better man for it.

LIASSON: In prison, McCain's youthful resistance to authority becomes the source of his inner strength and resilience. The story of McCain's personal courage, whether he's taking on his Vietnamese captors or corrupt members of his own party, is the core of McCain's political message. And it was the major theme at his nominating convention last month. Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson described the torture McCain endured in excruciating detail.

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Republican Politician; Actor; Attorney; Lobbyist): For five-and-a-half years, this went on. John McCain's bones may have been broken, but his spirit never was.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. THOMPSON: Now, being a POW doesn't qualify anyone to be president, but it does reveal character.

LIASSON: McCain's character and his temperament have become an issue this election year. McCain's detractors charge that his ability to resist his Vietnamese captors so fiercely has a flip side: recklessness. Former Vietnam POW Philip Butler appears in this ad aired by an independent, left-of-center group attacking McCain.

(Soundbite of independent campaign ad)

Dr. PHILIP BUTLER (Former Vietnam POW): He was well-known as a very volatile guy, and he would blow up and go off like a Roman candle. John McCain is not somebody that I would like to see with his finger near the red button.

LIASSON: And Obama supporters, like California Senator Barbara Boxer, are quick to quote the Republican senators that McCain has tangled with over the years.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): Just listen to what some of his Republican friends have said about him. Thad Cochran, a Republican conservative senator from Mississippi, says the thought of John McCain in the White House sends cold chills down his spine.

LIASSON: Senator Cochran did say that once. He's a member of the Appropriations Committee who's clashed with McCain over pork-barrel spending. But now, he and McCain's other erstwhile Republican antagonists are supporting McCain. McCain himself, often his own toughest critic, has written that he has a nasty temper, and that it's caused him to make some serious mistakes. But Mike Murphy, who ran McCain's presidential campaign in 2000, says the stories of McCain's temper are exaggerated and misunderstood.

Mr. MIKE MURPHY (Former McCain Campaign Strategist): I've seen a lot of politicians get mad. What's different about John McCain is when he's a little upset, he always gets upset up, not down. When the junior aide spills the coffee on him one minute before the live TV broadcast, I've seen other famous politicians just explode at the kid. Where McCain will get feisty is with cranky, old, know-it-all senators and other pushy people with power.

Professor FRED GREENSTEIN (Political Science, Princeton University): Well, I view him as a kind of force of nature.

LIASSON: That's Princeton political scientist Fred Greenstein, who's written several books about personality and politics. He says McCain's temperament had two distinct sides in the Senate.

Mr. GREENSTEIN: He could go off like a rocket launcher and spew profanity at somebody who crossed him or he thought was crossing him. But the other was that even some of the people who he antagonized came to be comfortable working with him, and he has been a very effective legislative broker.

MARA LIASSON: So there you have it, Melissa. McCain is the kind of guy who can use a four-letter word with a Republican colleague but also cross the aisle to cut deals with Democrats on big, difficult issues. He's capable of doing something bold and risky, and some would say reckless, by picking Sarah Palin, and now today saying he'd suspend his campaign and rush back to Washington to work on the bailout.

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