McCain: Willing to Offend Even Supporters

Click on Sen. John McCain's Web site and a pig appears, pushing a barrel with its snout, its tail tied to a banner that says "Pork Barreling."

The lumbering swine is a slap at lawmakers who use their clout to win federal money for home-state spending projects, and it provides a glimpse into McCain's style -- blunt, dogged, sometimes humorous, willing to offend.

"It does not concern him if he's not the most popular guy in the Republican" ranks of senators, says Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, one of only five GOP senators who supported the Arizonan in the 2000 presidential primaries.

It's a style that has helped push McCain, 65, to the brink of victory on his signature issue, intensely controversial legislation to curtail the role of money in politics. President Bush is expected to sign McCain's measure despite his own misgivings and opposition from many Republicans.

The struggle has largely defined McCain's career in recent years, a seven-year effort that marked his rise as a politician with a national following yet brought him biting criticism from those he works most closely with.

"Whenever you're doing something that upsets the status quo, you're going to upset people," he said in a recent interview. "And as I've said many times this takes power away from institutions and people who are in the Senate and in the House."

McCain's foes concede his energy has made the difference after years of opposition filibusters. Yet he is regularly denounced by fellow Republicans, with the most biting criticism uttered off the record or in private.

"A legend in his own mind," House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas once labeled him at a closed-door meeting, according to participants who refused to be identified by name.

He can vent his displeasure at aides -- including those who work for other lawmakers -- and even allies have felt his intensity.

"I misspoke once and he was all over me," recalls Massachusetts Rep. Martin Meehan, the chief Democratic supporter of the bill in the House and a man who faced criticism from Democrats for supporting the measure.

Agitating for political reform seemed an unlikely mission when McCain won election to the House in 1982 as a conservative follower of Ronald Reagan.

The son and grandson of admirals, he was something of a rebel at the Naval Academy, graduating near the bottom of his class in 1958.

Flying a mission over Vietnam in 1967, he was shot down. He was a prisoner of war for more than five years, tortured and kept in solitary confinement for long periods. Yet when his captors offered him early release as the scion of a military family, he refused the special treatment.

McCain ran for the House in 1982 not long after moving to Arizona. Challenged as a carpetbagger, the ex-POW defended his ground: "The longest place I ever lived in was Hanoi."

He won his Senate seat in 1986. But he soon found himself tainted, the only Republican among five senators accused of intervening with federal regulators for Charles H. Keating Jr., a savings and loan operator and political donor.

He received a mild rebuke from the Senate ethics committee in 1991. His interest in reform issues seemed to quicken in the years that followed, and he and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., began working together on campaign finance legislation in 1995.

Over 16 years in the Senate, McCain has also carved out a role as a leading spokesman in his party on military affairs.

The former chairman and now senior Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, he played a key role in drafting legislation after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to increase airline security.

His efforts to rein in spending led to support for legislation to allow presidents to veto individual items in spending bills, a measure struck down by the Supreme Court.

It's a fate he hopes won't befall campaign finance legislation.

McCain made reform an over-arching theme of his 2000 presidential campaign, winning primaries in New Hampshire and a handful of other states before dropping out. He showed an ability, envied by other Republicans, to attract independent voters.

He raised about $42 million as a candidate, and more for his political action committee, Straight Talk America. But none of it came from the type of unlimited donations the current legislation would ban.

He campaigned widely for GOP House candidates in the fall of 2000, helping the party hold its majority and picking up IOUs for the battle ahead on campaign finance.

"I also have a mandate," he said when it was over -- at a time when most Republicans wanted to work on Bush's agenda.

His most significant legislative victory assured, McCain turns aside questions of his long-range plans. His term expires in 2004 and he has had two cancerous lesions removed since the summer of 2000.

For now, he has a robust agenda, including national service legislation, a patients' bill of rights, and military reform.

And then there's pork barrel spending, money he says is wasted.

"It's become so rampant that I think we have a chance to reform it," he says.