The Hot-Tempered Candidate

John McCain: loose cannon or straight shooter-or maybe a little bit of both?

The Republican presidential candidate's latest dust-up came with fellow Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. The pair tangled recently over the new immigration bill that McCain is cosponsoring. Cornyn accused his Arizona colleague of trying to "parachute" into congressional negotiations after spending most of his time campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination. McCain responded testily that he knew more about the issue than anyone else in the room. At one point, according to the Washington Post, he told Cornyn, "F-??-??- you."

Later, McCain's feisty side emerged again when he sniped at rival candidate Mitt Romney over the same immigration bill. McCain told bloggers in a conference call that Romney had flip-flopped from his earlier support and added, as a joke, "Maybe his solution will be to get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn." This was a reminder that Romney had once billed himself as a lifelong hunter but later admitted he had only occasionally gunned for "varmints" such as rabbits and rats. The remark raised another issue-that Romney had apparently unwittingly employed undocumented Guatemalans to do yardwork.

Temperament. For veteran campaign watchers, it was all good fun-but there is an important subtext as well. McCain's critics have long claimed that the 70-year-old former POW lacks the temperament to be president. And the Democrats are only too happy to stoke the issue now. "Apparently the stress of reviving his crumbling presidential campaign during politically sensitive talks on immigration reform was too much for John McCain," DNC spokesman Damien LaVera said in a broadside E-mailed to reporters last week. The DNC said McCain's "temper tantrums are just the latest reminder that John McCain simply isn't offering the kind of leadership that the American people want in their next president."

It wasn't the first time that McCain's sharp tongue has landed him in trouble. In February 2000, when his presidential campaign was on the ropes, he attacked Christian conservative leaders as "agents of intolerance," which alienated many in the religious right. Since then, the perils of a gaffe have grown worse. The 24-hour news cycle, the Internet, and YouTube can dramatically magnify such feistiness and in the process make someone look like a hothead or a bully.

But McCain's allies have their own spin; they say he will continue to speak his mind, and they couldn't change that if they wanted to. "His persona is what it is," said McCain spokesman Brian Jones. McCain's defenders add that strong presidents have a habit of using salty language and getting angry. Examples include Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. More recently, Vice President Dick Cheney famously used the "F" word in 2004 during a quarrel with Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont.

But the bottom line, according to McCain partisans, is that politics has become overly cautious and boring. It's long past time, they say, for everybody to loosen up. And speak his or her mind.

By Kenneth T. Walsh