Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- It is a tribute to John McCain's remarkable political luck that the issue of his temper should arise just as the Democratic contest has reached a stage of red-faced, ear-steaming mutual contempt. It was former President Bill Clinton, not McCain, who recently lost his cool during a meeting with California superdelegates. In a finger-pointing rage over Gov. Bill Richardson's endorsement of Barack Obama, Clinton claimed, "Five times to my face (Richardson) said that he would never do that." The San Francisco Chronicle reported that one attendee called it "one of the worst political meetings I have ever attended."

All of which undermines the most incendiary point made against McCain. In the course of a recent Washington Post article on McCain's history of anger management issues, former New Hampshire Sen. Robert Smith claims that McCain's "temper would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger." The argument seems to be: McCain will get ticked off and invade Iran -- or maybe, on a bad day, Canada. But Bill Clinton's famous purple rages did not translate into foreign policy aggressiveness or irresponsibility. History shows that the petty can be peaceful -- and that men of irenic temperament can be forced to war.

But the McCain campaign's response to the Post article claimed that the candidate's "temper is no greater than the average person's" and that the article is "99 percent fiction."

I'd bet on less than that.

McCain, after all, has contributed to the legend of his own temper -- using it as evidence of his own fierce independence. His 1999 autobiography relates how, as an angry 2-year-old, he would hold his breath until he lost consciousness -- the kind of family lore with the ring of truth. He seems to take pride in the wild defiance of his high school and college years. And McCain's spirited contempt for his captors at the Hanoi Hilton is worthy of legend.

McCain's colleagues in Congress do recount rough treatment. Having worked for years as a Senate staffer, I can report that it is not common for one member to tell another "f--- you" -- as McCain did to Sen. John Cornyn during the immigration debate. And McCain himself, in more reflective moments, understands this weakness. "I have a temper, to state the obvious," he wrote in a 2002 memoir, "which I have tried to control with varying degrees of success because it does not always serve my interest or the public's."

So what difference does this make? Despite these emotional eruptions, McCain has managed to retain a loyal staff and work on legislation across the aisle.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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