Columns » Ernest Dumas

McCain’s rage at Pryor

Can a man who crossed paths with David Pryor nearly every day for six years and would not speak to him make a good president?



It would not have been a farcical question for many colleagues of Pryor and John McCain in the U.S. Senate, where McCain's volcanic rages and grudges and Pryor's bipartisan benevolence were equal legends. McCain kept his temper under studied control through the endless hectoring by Mitt Romney through the presidential campaign, but he resurrected the old question last week when he bullied a reporter who had asked him to explain why he gave conflicting accounts of whether John Kerry offered him the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 2004.

McCain's epic snub of Pryor, who was every senator's personal buddy, was one of many stories of the Arizona senator's rages, one of which — with nonagenarian Strom Thurmond — ended with a scuffle on the Senate floor.

Pryor had been assigned against his wishes to the Senate Ethics Committee, which from his first day had to deal with a run of ethical lapses by senators. The biggest case was the Keating Five — the five senators, three Democrats and two Republicans, who tried to thwart a federal investigation of savings-and-loan swindler Charles Keating. Keating had helped bankroll McCain's political career and flew the congressman and then senator around on his jets. The eventual federal bailout of Keating's thrift cost taxpayers $2.6 billion.

The Ethics Committee, with Pryor's vote, handed a mild rebuke to McCain, along with Pryor's close friend John Glenn, and tougher admonitions to Republican David Durenberger and Democrats Alan Cranston and Dennis DeConcini.

While the scandal ended the careers of the other four, the shame turned McCain, by his own account, into a scourge of money and influence and set him upon a whole new career as Washington's ethical exemplar. You would think that Pryor might be assigned a nobler role in McCain's redemption.

But from the day of the rebuke in early 1991 until Pryor's last day in the Senate in December 1996 McCain did not speak to Pryor, snubbing him on the Senate floor and committee rooms, turning his back in the Senate elevator, the Capitol subway, the Senate dining room and wherever they met. All the other senators who were rebuked, including another Pryor pal, Harrison Williams of New Jersey, who resigned from the Senate during the Abscam investigation, kept a measure of grace and cordiality.

On his last day, after senators paraded to the well to pay tribute to Pryor, he accepted handshakes from his colleagues and was signing his name in his desk drawer — a bit of vandalism that had become tradition in the Senate — when he saw McCain marching toward him.

“Oh my gosh,” Pryor thought, “this guy is finally going to whip me, he's going to let me have it.” He knew about other senators' brushes with McCain.

But McCain said he was sorry for the way he had treated Pryor and asked if they could hug. Pryor embraced him and McCain turned and strode away. Pryor went back to his empty office that night, wrote a note saying how much the gesture meant to him, walked down the hall and slipped it under McCain's door.

That may tell more about Pryor than McCain. There is not much warmth for McCain in the Senate, even among Republicans, who have borne more of his wrath than Democrats. “Everybody has a McCain story,” former Sen. Rick Santorum told the Washington Post. “If you work in the Senate for a while, you have a McCain story.”

There are the now famous words of Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi. “The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine.” A Republican Utah senator told a colleague from Arkansas last summer when McCain's campaign seemed to be in the toilet that he was sleeping better at night knowing that John McCain would never be picking up the red phone. Since McCain nailed down the GOP nomination, both senators have endorsed him.

McCain used to call reporters who asked him persistent questions liars and jerks but that impulse went into remission during the campaign until last week. His tirades against staffers are legend, starting with an outburst in front of a huge crowd on election night 1996 when he abused a young Republican volunteer who put up a lectern that McCain, who is 5-9, thought made him look too stubby on television.

The economy and terrorism may be the respective issues of the Democrats and Republicans but temperament has to be a subliminal concern either way. If a man cannot get along with David Pryor what chance will he have with the truly mercurial leaders of the world or of his own Congress?

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