Temper, Temper

Temper, Temper

Here’s a story about John McCain’s temper (h/t):

“McCain’s game is craps. So is Jeff Dearth’s. Jeff was at the table when McCain showed up and happily made room for him. Apparently there is some kind of rule or tradition in craps that everyone’s hands are supposed to be above the table when the dice are about to be thrown. McCain — “very likely distracted by one of the many people who approached him that evening,” Jeff says charitably — apparently was violating this rule. A small middle-aged woman at the table, apparently a “regular,” reached out and pulled McCain’s arm away. I’ll let Jeff take over the story:

“McCain immediately turned to the woman and said between clenched teeth: ‘DON’T TOUCH ME.’ The woman started to explain…McCain interrupted her: ‘DON’T TOUCH ME,’ he repeated viciously. The woman again tried to explain. ‘DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU’RE TALKING TO?’ McCain continued, his voice rising and his hands now raised in the ‘bring it on’ position. He was red-faced. By this time all the action at the table had stopped. I was completely shocked. McCain had totally lost it, and in the space of about ten seconds. ‘Sir, you must be courteous to the other players at the table,’ the pit boss said to McCain. “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? ASK ANYBODY AROUND HERE WHO I AM.”

This being Puerto Rico, the pit boss might not have known McCain. But the senator continued in full fury — “DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU’RE TALKING TO? DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”– and crisis was avoided only when Jeff offered to change places and stand between McCain and the woman who had touched his arm.”

And here’s a video on the same subject (h/t):

***

Yesterday, Obama said:

“I am surprised that, you know, we’ve been seeing some pretty over-the-top attacks coming out of the McCain campaign over the last several days, that he wasn’t willing to say it to my face.”

Obama seems to me to be needling McCain, trying to provoke him into losing at least his cool, and possibly his temper. He is, in short, trying to provoke exactly the response described above.

I do not think that this is unfair. For one thing, nothing Obama has said has seemed to me to cross the line into incivility or unfairness. He is trying to provoke McCain not with actual rudeness, but with tiny pinpricks that McCain genuinely should not respond to. It’s a kind of psychological ju-jitsu: it works, if it does, only by taking advantage of one’s opponent’s weakness. If one’s opponent turns out to have no weakness to take advantage of, it simply fails.

For another, it does not seem inconceivable to me that Obama might provoke McCain into a real flash of temper. If that is possible, I would rather know in advance. Leaders should have self-control. It should not be possible to provoke them. If Barack Obama can get inside John McCain’s head, there’s no reason to think that Vladimir Putin or Hu Jintao wouldn’t be able to. One way or the other, I’d rather know up front.

***

Josh Marshall, John Cole, and others have said that John McCain is a coward. They are right: it is cowardly to say things behind people’s back that you are not willing to say to their face. (And his courage in wartime has nothing to do with this: different situations call for different sorts of courage, and someone can be immensely brave when faced with physical pain, and yet completely undone when faced with certain kinds of confrontations or moral challenges.)

I don’t think that’s the whole story, though. Nothing in McCain’s history suggests that he is, in general, unwilling to confront people directly. On the contrary: there are any number of stories like the one I posted above, in which McCain blows up at people to their face.

I suspect there are (at least) two other things going on. First, McCain must know that it would be disastrous for him to lose his temper at Obama. If he were not sure that he would be able to control himself were he to make his attacks directly, that would explain a lot. Second, he must know that his usual tactics will not work on Obama.

Think about the story I posted above: “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? ASK ANYBODY AROUND HERE WHO I AM.” That’s entitlement speaking. That’s someone who is used to getting his way just by throwing his weight around — the sort of person who might decide, for instance, that the campaign should involve a long series of town hall meetings, and then hold what seems like an abiding grudge when his opponent turned out to have other ideas.

But here’s the thing: Obama already knows who John McCain is, and it doesn’t seem to matter. That cannot be easy for McCain to bear. (One way to see the ugliness of his campaign is as a prolonged, slow-motion temper tantrum in response to this, and to the thought that he is losing, and losing to Obama.) And while nothing suggests that McCain is averse to confrontation per se, confrontations with people he cannot bully might be another story entirely.

This season, Obama has had the good fortune to run against two people who held the peculiar belief that they were entitled to the Presidency, and who, as a result, badly underestimated him. The fact that he seems to never let that condescension get to him, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with luck, and everything to do with temperament and character. Since I agree with McCain that we will need a steady hand at the tiller in the years to come, I’m glad to see it.

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