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Thursday, June 13, 2024

A tale of two McCains

On television Tuesday, a presidential candidate I know well was blasting the Senate's "shabby treatment" of judicial nominees and basking in virtue for having voted to confirm presidential picks despite differences with their philosophies.

On television Tuesday, a presidential candidate I know well was blasting the Senate’s “shabby treatment” of judicial nominees and basking in virtue for having voted to confirm presidential picks despite differences with their philosophies.

The speech made me recall a decidedly different incident I’d witnessed years ago by another 2008 presidential candidate I know just as well. Let me tell you about both.

They are the John McCains.

“We’ve seen and heard the shabby treatment accorded to nominees, the caricature and code words shouted or whispered,” said McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee-in-waiting, at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C. He said Senate confirmation hearings have become “a gauntlet of abuse.”

After praising Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alioto as the models for nominations he would make as president, McCain added: “And yet when President Bill Clinton nominated Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsberg to serve on the high court, I voted for their confirmation, as did all but a few of my fellow Republicans. Why? For the simple reason that the nominees were qualified, and it would have been petty, and partisan, and disingenuous to insist otherwise. Those nominees represented the considered judgment of the president of the United States. And under our Constitution, it is the president’s call to make.”

As McCain harkened back to his exemplary temperate advise-and-consent deportment, I harkened back just a bit earlier to a judicial confirmation incident in which McCain was decidedly intemperate. It ended with the most unusual twist I’ve ever encountered in decades of covering overheated politicians.

Early in Clinton’s presidency, McCain dashed onto the Senate floor late one afternoon and single-handedly torpedoed a federal judgeship nomination in a way never seen before or since. (We won’t name the nominee here; he suffered enough abuse that day to last his lifetime.) With a flash of temper and unstoppable determination, McCain read into the record the nominee’s highly confidential U.S. military psychiatric profile. It is illegal to disseminate that information; but senators enjoy an immunity that permits them to say anything on the Senate floor without fear of prosecution.

The nominee, an apparently good and patriotic man, had sought confidential counseling decades earlier while serving his country’s military; suddenly his most private matters were thrust before his family, friends and strangers — even though it had nothing to do with his judicial performance in the years that followed.

Back then, I did commentaries on CNN, alternating every other day with columnists Rowland Evans or Robert Novak. I barely knew McCain then, but I telephoned McCain’s press secretary saying I was going to air a commentary sharply criticizing his outrageous violation of the nominee’s privacy and, while I’d be happy to listen to his explanation, nothing he could say would cause me to cancel the commentary. He didn’t call. My commentary aired — and it was the most strongly worded opinion piece I’ve written, before or since.

Early the next morning, my phone rang. “Hi, Marty. John McCain.” The senator said he’d seen my commentary — and that he agreed with every word of it. He even thanked me for it and said he was ashamed of what he had done. He said he’d only been thinking at the time that the Democrats had once shot down a Republican president’s Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork — and finally he had something to even the score. He’d raced to the Senate floor late in the day hoping to get his blast on the television nightly news. He said he would never make that mistake again. Then he asked if I wanted to join him for lunch that day in the Senate dining room.

We lunched. Then we check-wrestled (I won and bought). In between, we hashed, but just briefly, the confirmation incident. Then we hit other issues, how crazy Washington can be, and friendly small talk. Of course politicians love to court journalists. But in decades of covering politicians I’d never encountered a politician who responded to criticism that was so harsh in ways that were so contrite, even gracious. Never before. Never since.

In recent days we have seen both McCains. The flinty one and the funny one. You know them when you see them in your living rooms. Come autumn, we’ll surely see them again, tag teaming either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

You’ll have a ringside seat at the presidential “WrestleMania.” Don’t be surprised if it turns out to be two against one.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)

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