McCain aide Mark Salter wrote in, and I thought his account provided ample reasons for doubting the Washington Post’s story. Salter allowed me to post his email. (I’ve made minor edits for typos.)
Saw your post about the WP story on the McCain temper. If one half of it were true, it would give me pause. As it happens, 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. He argues, sometimes heatedly, with his peers, but he doesn’t hold grudges or pick on people subordinate to him. If you want to tell what members of Congress have ungovernable tempers, you need only look at how rapidly their staffs turnover. As a twenty-year veteran Hill staffer, I can assure you that is the best indicator of which members have bad tempers. McCain’s staff serve tenures well beyond the norm, because they are treated exceedingly well by him.
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. Let me give you two examples of Leahy’s reporting practices that serve to underscore that he had a thesis he wanted to prove and forced facts to make them fit it.
I am quoted regarding the Renzi incident saying something like “no punches were thrown,” making it seem as if i was excusing any incident as evidence of bad temper unless McCain drew blood. In fact, Leahy suggested to me that McCain had thrown a punch (I believe he got this from a defamatory book published recently by a Democratic activist). I responded directly to an accusation. More, I told him that McCain hadn’t lost his temper at all. McCain routinely refers to people and colleagues as “boy.” He does to me, to Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, and almost everybody. It’s like saying hey, buddy. He means nothing by it. Renzi was relatively new to Congress, and got upset when McCain refered to him in this completely innocuous way. All McCain told Renzi was that he meant nothing by it, and Renzi should calm down or words to that effect. That was it. And I explained all that to Leahy. None of it made it into the story. That wasn’t only place in the story he declined to quote me fairly or to quote my explanation at all.
When he asked me about Karen Johnson, who says McCain tried to block her from getting a job, I asked for details: what job; who did he call, when did it happen, etc. He said he couldn’t give them to me because he had promised his source he wouldn’t share those kind of details with McCain in advance of publication. Source didn’t ask for her identity to be protected and didn’t put the details off the record. They all appeared in the story. I explained to Leahy that this was a very unusual form of confidentiality, that an incident that was given to him on the record could not be shared with the subject of the story so that we could provide an informed response. There is only one reason that a source would act for that kind of selectively targeted and temporary confidentiality, to deny us the ability to disprove the story, which we could have done in ten minutes. It’s like telling someone he’s been accused of pedophilia, asking for a response, but declining to identify the incident in question. Mr. Leahy was unpersuaded.
In sum, this is one of the more shoddy examples of journalism I’ve ever encountered. But for the infamous NYT story, I’d say it was the worst smear job on McCain I’d ever seen.