10.09.08

At the Craps Tables With John McCain

How the Senator Lost it at a Puerto Rican Casino

For this entire presidential campaign, the media have been waiting for John McCain’s famous temper to explode. A few small examples have been reported without anyone trying to make a big deal about it. The rule seems to be that if he can keep it bottled until November 5, he’s home free. But if he explodes in the interim, it becomes an official issue. This isn’t completely nuts. If he can’t hold it in for just the few months he is under maximum scrutiny, then he has a real problem. Otherwise, hey—Bill Clinton also had a temper, it was said, along with other uncontrollable passions.

Until recently this anger business didn’t bother me much. There is a lot to be angry about. Furthermore, I was not confident that McCain’s anger passed the whose-ox-is-gored test: As an Obama supporter, would I be equally alarmed if my preferred candidate had anger issues? (Which some folks say he does, by the way.) Then I heard the following story.

“DON’T TOUCH ME,” he repeated viciously. “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU’RE TALKING TO?”

It comes in an email from my friend Jeff Dearth, a media investment banker and former publisher of The New Republic. We also went to junior high and high school together in Michigan. He would not make this up. In 2005, Jeff attended a magazine industry conference at a casino hotel in Puerto Rico. (I was there, too, though not a witness to what follows.) The guest speaker was McCain. He put on a terrific performance, breaking up the friendly crowd by referring to journalists as “my base.” (To anyone who remembers this period in McCain’s history, his attempt this year to paint Barack Obama as Britney Spears or Paris Hilton because Obama is now the media darling seems especially cheap.)

McCain’s game is craps. So is Jeff Dearth’s. Jeff was at the table when McCain showed up and happily made room for him. Apparently there is some kind of rule or tradition in craps that everyone’s hands are supposed to be above the table when the dice are about to be thrown. McCain—“very likely distracted by one of the many people who approached him that evening,” Jeff says charitably—apparently was violating this rule. A small middle-aged woman at the table, apparently a “regular,” reached out and pulled McCain’s arm away. I’ll let Jeff take over the story:

“McCain immediately turned to the woman and said between clenched teeth: ‘DON’T TOUCH ME.’ The woman started to explain...McCain interrupted her: ‘DON’T TOUCH ME,’ he repeated viciously. The woman again tried to explain. ‘DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU’RE TALKING TO?’ McCain continued, his voice rising and his hands now raised in the ‘bring it on’ position. He was red-faced. By this time all the action at the table had stopped. I was completely shocked. McCain had totally lost it, and in the space of about ten seconds. ‘Sir, you must be courteous to the other players at the table,’ the pit boss said to McCain. “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? ASK ANYBODY AROUND HERE WHO I AM.”

This being Puerto Rico, the pit boss might not have known McCain. But the senator continued in full fury—“DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU’RE TALKING TO? DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”—and crisis was avoided only when Jeff offered to change places and stand between McCain and the woman who had touched his arm.

What is bothersome about this story, if it’s true, is only partly the explosive anger. More, it’s the arrogance. At the craps table, who cares who he is? And there’s the recklessness of such a performance in a casino full of journalists (unless McCain absolutely couldn’t control himself, which is even scarier). But this gamble paid off. Although there were published reports that McCain had gambled late into the night, which properly treated that matter as charming, this particular episode has gone unreported until now. Maybe no journalist saw it. Or maybe this illustrates the unwritten rule of political journalism that all human-interest anecdotes must reaffirm a previously established belief. Arrogance is something McCain is not known for. Quite the opposite. Logic might dictate that an anecdote showing that, say, Obama has webbed feet would be more interesting than one showing that he is a skinny guy with big ears. But that’s not how it works.

Jeff Dearth is not an extreme partisan or an activist for either candidate. He supports Obama, in part because he is truly alarmed at the thought of the arrogant hothead he saw becoming president. (“I’d happily gamble with Senator McCain again,” he says, “but I definitely wouldn’t gamble on him.”) It alarms me, too. John McCain is the best Republican presidential candidate of my lifetime. But a performance like this would give me pause about supporting a candidate of either party.