McCain caring, combative, complicated

October 24, 2008|By Jeff Barker

Twelve years ago, Sen. John McCain used to sit near Morris K. Udall's hospital bed and talk to the former Democratic presidential candidate. Mr. Udall's Parkinson's disease was at an advanced stage.

Mr. McCain didn't publicize his encounters with Mr. Udall, the longtime Arizona congressman who died in December 1998 at age 76. I was intrigued when I heard about the visits through the late congressman's friends. I was then a senior Washington reporter for The Arizona Republic and had been covering Mr. McCain for seven years. I knew less about Mr. Udall, who had retired in 1991 - the year I started at the newspaper - after 30 years in the House. But I understood instinctively how different the two men were.

Mo Udall was a lanky, self-effacing, Lincolnesque man who possessed an ease with people that voters sensed was genuine. His civility seemed charmingly out of step with the often venomous, paranoia-driven politics of today.

Mr. McCain was, by contrast, a scrapper, a bulldog. It seemed fitting that he had boxed at the Naval Academy and adored the sport as an adult. Mr. McCain used to describe his personality as "very competitive." But it was more than that. There could be an unease about him. Mr. McCain "seems a man not quite at peace, one who at times must wage inner struggles to keep his emotions in check," I wrote in The Republic in 1996.

But Mr. McCain could also be charming - never more so than when he talked about his frailties. He would sometimes describe how he worked to avoid impatience and anger. He said he admired Mr. Udall because the congressman possessed naturally the grace that seemed to elude him.

It intrigued me that Mr. McCain acknowledged his imperfections. This was unusual on Capitol Hill, where acknowledging weakness can be considered admitting defeat. His candor appealed to voters during the 2000 campaign.

I once asked a senior Arizona politician about the yin and yang of John McCain. "Well," the politician said, "I think he's complicated."

I came to regard Mr. McCain as a man of contrasts: engaging but temperamental, unpleasant at times but eager to please. He didn't talk to me or my Republic colleagues for well over a year after the newspaper printed an editorial cartoon about his wife, Cindy, in 1994 that he considered cruel. However, he wrote me a congratulatory note when I got engaged in 1999. Then, during the 2000 campaign, I was permanently banned from the "Straight Talk Express" because of disputes between Mr. McCain and the paper. He once refused to shake my hand.

It was during that chilly period that a card arrived in the mail. "I really would love to have you over, any time you are free," said the card. It was signed, "Truly yours, Roberta McCain" - Mr. McCain's mother. I had profiled her for the newspaper, and we had enjoyed a long conversation about life. I ended up going to her Washington apartment one afternoon for tea and finger sandwiches.

So it went covering John McCain.

Assessing Mr. McCain was like contemplating one of Arizona's craggy peaks, whose color and complexion seem to change depending on how the sun strikes them. He adores winning political battles but seems to relish being a principled loser. He seemed more at ease railing against segments of the GOP establishment and losing the 2000 nomination than he did running a more conventional campaign and winning this year's nomination.

Since I was the local reporter, pundits often asked me about Mr. McCain during the 2000 race. Which is the real John McCain, they would ask. Is it the one feuding with Arizona reporters or the one captivating the national media on the campaign bus?

My response was always the same. They're two sides of the same "complicated" guy.

Jeff Barker is a sports reporter for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is jeff.barker@baltsun.com.

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