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Johnny’s Tantrums


When John McCain III was about two years old, he acquired a habit that worried his parents. He developed an “outsized temper” that he expressed in an unusual fashion. “At the smallest provocation, I would go off in a mad frenzy, and then, suddenly crash to the floor unconscious.” (John McCain and Mark Salter, Faith of my Fathers, 1999)

Little Johnny’s parents took him to see a Navy doctor, who concluded that their son’s behavior was nothing to get upset about. “It was self-induced,” McCain writes. “When I got angry I held my breath until I blacked out.” The doctor then prescribed a cure. “He instructed my parents to fill a bathtub with cold water whenever I commenced a tantrum, and when I appeared to be holding my breath to drop me, fully clothed, into it.”

“Eventually,” McCain and Salter assure the reader, “I achieved a satisfactory (if only temporary) control over my emotions.” Little Johnny is now running for the office of president of the United States, and his emotions require consideration.

McCain comes from a military family. Both his father and grandfather worked and studied hard and became admirals. So no one found it surprising when John McCain III entered the U.S. Naval Academy in the summer of 1954. But by his own admission, he did not excel at the academy.

While there, McCain took up the sport of boxing.  Robert Timberg’s John McCain: An American Odyssey (1999) provides a look a McCain’s skill in the ring. The book contains a Naval Academy photograph of John III throwing a right cross at an unidentified opponent. The caption states that “Midshipman John McCain’s boxing style was to charge to the center of the ring and throw punches until either he or his opponent went down.”

I hate to criticize any athlete, but John III could have improved his style by watching Sugar Ray Robinson at work in the ring. Boxers who charged Robinson in such an awkward fashion soon found themselves lying on the canvas. And they didn’t get there by holding their breath until they blacked out. Even when in the Naval Academy, McCain still had not escaped the self-defeating anger of his childhood.

While not flailing away in the boxing ring, John III flailed away academically. After four years of this sport, he graduated from the Naval Academy and enrolled in Navy flight school. Once again, McCain found himself in a succession of unhappy situations. While in flight school, his trainer landed in the Gulf of Mexico instead of on an airstrip at Corpus Christi. I don’t know the details. Perhaps he was holding his breath again.

In 1965, McCain crashed another plane, this one in the state of Virginia. With a record like his, I can see why John III frequently argues for a larger military budget.

Eventually, McCain found himself at the controls of U.S. A-4 bombers in the Vietnam War. He flew 23 missions, during which he dropping bombs on fields, buildings, and people in and around Hanoi and Haiphong. “The A-4 is a small, fast, highly maneuverable aircraft, a lot of fun to fly, and it can take a beating,” he wrote. On his last mission, he had just released his bomb load when a surface-to-air missile blew off the right wing of his plane.

John III ejected from the A-4 bomber, breaking both arms and his right leg in the process. He floated down toward a civilian section in the center of Hanoi, where his bombs had just landed. His parachute dropped him into Truc Bach Lake, a body of water designed for the enjoyment of the citizens. One of those citizens swam out and saved his life. Others reacted with less sympathy. Fortunately for McCain, a truck full of Vietnamese soldiers arrived and saved him from the civilians.

John III spent the next five years in a POW camp. He claims the guards tortured him. I don’t know how many people he killed with his bombs.

* * *

After returning to the United States after the war, John III went into politics. In this field, as in others in the past, his anger has often guided his actions. He seems not to have escaped the childhood tantrums that led to an unknown number of cold swims in the tub. And he combines his anger with the use of foul language that I’m sure his mother did not approve of.

Using the “F” word, for example, McCain once insulted Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa so much that Grassley refused to speak to him for two years. John III used similar language to insult Senator Pete Domenici.

Decades after killing an unknown number of Vietnamese, he still calls them racist names. “I hate the gooks,” he said in 2000. “I will hate them as long as I live.”

These are only a few examples of McCain’s outbursts. He also insults members of his staff and complete strangers.

But does all this unpleasantness really matter in an election? Perhaps it means a great deal in a presidential election. Early in 2008, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi said, “The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.” (Boston Globe, 1/27/2008)

McCain has another problem that relates to all this. He’s a compulsive gambler, and he loses thousands of dollars every year. He shoots craps, which any professional gambler will tell you is a sucker’s game. It’s all a matter of luck, unlike five-card stud, for example, where you can see and remember some of the cards dealt. And you can calculate the odds of what cards will appear next.

Do we really want an angry, racist president, one who makes decisions by rolling dice? Think about it. If you’re still not sure, take a nice cold bath.

PATRICK IRELAN is a retired high-school teacher. He is the author of A Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press) and Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family (University of Iowa Press). You can contact him at





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