Increasingly certain that their Democratic opponent in the fall will be Barack Obama, John McCain's political handlers sketch out their basic strategy: to portray Obama as a mere novice in statecraft, devoid of those powers of mature wisdom and sober judgment with which the seasoned McCain is so richly endowed.




The danger here for McCain is that there are bountiful stories attesting to his volcanic lack of self control, capricious moral standards and lack of political judgment. In 1999, when McCain was battling George Bush for the Republican nomination, the Arizona Republic, one of the most conservative dailies in the country, editorialized about "less flattering" aspects of the senator's character "worthy of voter attention and consideration. Many Arizonans active in policymaking have been the victim of McCain's volcanic temper. McCain often insults people and flies off the handle." There is reason, the editorial concluded bleakly, "to seriously question whether McCain has the temperament, and the political approach and skills, we want in the next president of the United States."




Though the same paper has offered demure support for McCain this time around, Democratic campaign commercials in the fall will surely be citing the paper's 1999 verdict, along with the considered judgment a few weeks ago of Thad Cochran, the Republican senator from Mississippi and a man who's known McCain for 30 years, that "the thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded."




There was a famous fight in Arizona that went on for years about Mount Graham, on which the federal government wanted to put a telescope. Indians said it was sacred. Greens said its slopes sheltered the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis). In 1992, a couple of well respected physicians, Robin Silver and Bob Witzeman, went to meet McCain at his office in Phoenix to discuss Mount Graham. At the time of McCain's 1999 run, the doctors told my CounterPunch colleague Jeffrey St. Clair that at the mention of the words "Mount Graham," McCain erupted into a violent fit. "He jumped up and down, screaming obscenities at us for at least 10 minutes," Silver said. "He shook his fists as if he was going to slug us."




Witzeman left the meeting stunned at McCain's "violent, irrational temper. To my mind, McCain's the most likely senator to start a nuclear war."




The last time anyone made that sort of charge against a senator from Arizona and presidential candidate, it was about Barry Goldwater, who ran against Lyndon Johnson in 1964. A famously effective campaign ad showed a little girl picking a daisy, which then mutated into a mushroom cloud. Painted as a potential nuker of the planet, Goldwater lost in a landslide.




The U.S. press has fawned over McCain the "maverick" for years, but his colleagues in the Senate have long regarded McCain as a mere grandstander, posturing for C-SPAN's camera and microphone about wasteful spending, then meekly voting for the pork barrel items he'd been denouncing half an hour earlier. They snicker at his Cato-like affectations of moral purity, noting such seamy episodes as McCain's imprudent association in his early years in Congress with Charles Keating, an Arizona bank swindler, ultimately convicted and sent to prison. They point to the torrents of PAC money pouring into McCain's campaign treasury from the corporations that crave his indulgence as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Communications companies (US West, Bell South, ATT, Bell Atlantic), have been particularly effusive in topping up McCain's treasury, as have banks and military contractors. In a very damaging story suggesting McCain's ethical double-standards, The New York Times on Wednesday, Feb. 20, cited senior McCain aides as decrying their boss's unwise association &

one they construed as possibly romantic in nature &

amid his 2000 presidential bid with an attractive corporate lobbyist for the telecommunications industry, 32-year-old Vicki Iseman. The aides say they confronted Iseman and told her to stay away from the senator. McCain denies any romantic involvement but admitted he had been unwise.




For such reasons, it is foolish to think McCain will find it easy to put a shrewd debater like Obama on the defensive. And beyond such biographical impedimenta, the 71-year-old Arizona senator totters toward the fall campaign under one huge burden that is not his fault. This week, George Bush's approval rating sank to the lowest in the history of such polls, 19 percent. There is abundant evidence that a very large number of Americans have simply had it with a Republican president. A Republican debacle of Goldwater proportions could be in the offing. For McCain, the omens &

starting with the plummeting economy &

are dark.




Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through . To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at .