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A peek inside the media's peek inside John McCain's temper

April 21, 2008 |  8:12 am


Political reporters -- or any reporters, for that matter -- quickly become accustomed to complaints from the subjects of their news coverage. Some complaints are angry, some whiny, some reasoned and legitimate, others are strategic, launched by campaigns as warnings, like brushback pitches in baseball.

The campaigns have leverage because they control much of a reporter's access to their members. The reporters have leverage because they're going to write the story anyway, they say; you might as well get your side included. Through such secret negotiatiArizona Senator and Republican presidential nominee-to-be John McCain with Mark Salter, a top aide and co-author.ons, campaign members may provide inside details for the planned story, frequently on the promise of anonymity.

The reporter will also talk with outside sources, some also seeking anonymity and some with grudges or agendas of their own.

The sources are often handcuffed, however, if they feel wronged in the final version because they can't complain publicly without admitting their participation. Additionally, public complaints by politicians, like libel suits by members of organized crime, only serve to call the objectionable details to the attention of even more people.

As a result, specific complaints about a story or reporter rarely seep out of the political background to reach the eyes and ears of the public that consumes the news and votes for the politicians involved.

But now we have one.

The Washington Post on Sunday was only the latest of major media outlets to examine the issue of...

Sen. John McCain's temper, which emerges in the national news every time he does. The legitimate issue, of course, is, would his judgment as commander in chief be clouded by fury at a key time?

The lengthy Post story by Michael Leahy, which is likely to prompt stories by other news outlets, many drawing on the Post's material, cited numerous alleged examples of the Arizonan's outbursts, some recycled, occurring in the 1980s and 1990s.

Cover of audio book co-authored by Arizona Senator and Republican presidential nominee-to-be John McCain and a top aide, Mark Salter.

McCain, who did not talk to Leahy, has often admitted his temper in books and speeches and is said to have realized the costs of it during the 2000 primaries and to have toned it down.

After studying the damning article, Ramesh Ponnuru, one of the writers on the widely-read The Corner blog on, wrote a brief item at 1:24 p.m., saying the article might give McCain supporters "pause," even if they eventually stuck with the senator for the general election come Nov. 4.

One of the major sources for Leahy's story was Mark Salter, a key McCain strategist and co-author with him of five books. To say he disagreed with much of Leahy's account puts it mildly.

When he saw Ponnuru's post Sunday afternoon, Salter fired off a long, detailed e-mail to the blogger, listing his detailed, candid objections to the story, presumably seeking to head off wider use of the Post's details by a source closely watched by many in the Republican Party base.

The message provides a revealing window into the usually unseen working relationships between news sources and news gatherers. Ponnuru says as a result, he started to doubt the Post story and fired back an e-mail with the unusual request for permission to publish the personal message.

Surprisingly, Salter agreed. As a result, less than three hours later we could read:

"The piece is 99% fiction. [Reporter Michael] Leahy is a nice guy, but the story was one of the more dishonest I've read in a while. I talked to him for over two hours. Some of the instances, like the Bob Smith one, he never even raised with me so I could respond. For others, he declined to print my rebuttal.

"He used my quotes in ways that made them seem as if I were confirming his thesis when I insisted that McCain's temper is no greater than the average person's, and that I personally know 20 or 25 Senators with much worse tempers."

Salter adds: "The story about the Young Republican in 1982 is entirely fictional. The Bob Smith incident is entirely fictional. The Karen Johnson story is entirely fictional. Most of the others are exaggerated beyond recognition."

Other than that, it seems, Salter likes the story.

You can read the entire Salter memo here and the complete Post story here.

Asked about the Post story during an interview on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" on Sunday morning, McCain dismissed it. “One thing I’ve learned over time," he said, "is that stories get better and better over time.”

(UPDATE: Now former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith is denying the details of his past confrontations with McCain. He's told Fox News' Carl Cameron they were exaggerated in the Post article and previous accounts. Here's video from April 21, 2008:

-- Andrew Malcolm

Photo credit: Stephen Savoia /Associated Press