John McCain sounds angry and frustrated that, despite the risks he took in pushing immigration reform, Hispanic voters flocked to Democrat Barack Obama in last year's presidential contest. McCain's raw emotions burst forth recently as he heatedly told Hispanic business leaders that they should now look to Obama, not him, to take the lead on immigration.
The meeting in the Capitol's Strom Thurmond Room on March 11 was a Republican effort led by Sens. McCain of Arizona, John Thune of South Dakota, and Mel Martinez of Florida to reach out to Hispanics. But two people who attended the session say they were taken aback by McCain's anger.
What began as a collegial airing of views abruptly changed when McCain spoke about immigration, according to these sources, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. Anonymity was also requested by a third source, who was not at the meeting but was told, independently of the other two, that McCain had displayed his notorious temper.
"He was angry," one source said. "He was over the top. In some cases, he rolled his eyes a lot. There were portions of the meeting where he was just staring at the ceiling, and he wasn't even listening to us. We came out of the meeting really upset."
McCain's message was obvious, the source continued: After bucking his party on immigration, he had no sympathy for Hispanics who are dissatisfied with President Obama's pace on the issue. "He threw out [the words] 'You people -- you people made your choice. You made your choice during the election,' " the source said. "It was almost as if [he was saying] 'You're cut off!' We felt very uncomfortable when we walked away from the meeting because of that."
In 2006 and 2007, McCain was a leader on immigration, but his efforts ran aground largely because his legislation included what many Republicans derisively characterized as "amnesty," a pathway to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants if they took a series of steps to earn legal status.
Having stuck his neck out in the past, McCain apparently is in no mood to do so again for an ethnic group he seems to view as ungrateful. On NBC's Meet the Press on March 29, McCain repeated his message that the ball is in the Democratic president's court. So far, the senator said, he has not seen much on immigration from the Obama White House, although the president recently met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and set the goal of launching the debate in the fall, a senior administration official said.
Asked on the show whether he would work with Obama on the issue, McCain said, "At any time, I stand ready. But the president has to lead."
McCain, who declined through his spokeswoman to be interviewed about his meeting with the Hispanic leaders, has been dogged throughout his career by stories highlighting his sometimes fierce temper. Both Martinez and Thune take issue with those who said that McCain raged at the group.
"What I saw... was John McCain saying, 'Look, I didn't get a lot of support from the Hispanic community,' which he deserved to have had," Martinez said. "It frustrated me. It frustrated him. [McCain said,] 'You guys thought this guy [Obama] was going to be your savior. Where is his leadership?' I sort of echo that. It's not like [the meeting] went badly, I don't think."
How did people attending the session react to McCain? Martinez said, "I think they thought he's still smarting a little bit. But I don't think they felt threatened or attacked or anything like that. I don't think so. My sense is the meeting was not ruined by John in any way, shape, or form."
Martinez, who is Hispanic, continued, "John is John. Sometimes when he talks, he talks forcefully. He wasn't ranting or raving or anything. I have seen John rant and rave. I don't think this was one of those moments."
Thune agreed: "It was a spirited discussion, but this sort of incendiary-type way that some people are characterizing it just doesn't fit at all the tone of the meeting." In fact, he added, "after it was over, [the guests] were taking photos [with the senators]. They were handing out business cards."
Carlos Loumiet, chairman of the board of the New America Alliance, a nonpartisan organization of American Latino business leaders, attended and said he has "nothing negative to say." McCain, he added, was "forceful on the need to bring forth comprehensive immigration and for the president to lead on it.... He was just very direct and very forceful."
McCain's communications director, Brooke Buchanan, also disputed the notion that her boss's temper had flared at the meeting. She did not attend, but said she had been briefed at length about it.
Buchanan noted McCain's history of pushing immigration reform in the face of staunch opposition from many in his party, his work across the aisle with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and his popularity among Hispanics in Arizona.
She insisted that the 72-year-old senator's use of the words "you people" was in response to a question about people in general who had voted for Obama and was not meant to refer to Hispanics. To imply otherwise, she said, is "character assassination."
Buchanan said McCain was not angry and was simply offering "a little bit of 'straight talk,' " the senator's pet phrase for his candor. "He gets impassioned about some of these issues, and that is one of them.... Whenever anyone wants to hurt McCain, they say he is angry."
But one person's straight talk is another person's vitriol. "My hands were shaking," one source said. "I was nervous as no-end." The senator's comments went on for several minutes at least. And by the end of the meeting, another participant, who had supported McCain in last year's presidential election, was so shaken by the display of temper that he decided it is good that McCain isn't in the White House.
McCain has become irate over immigration legislation before. During negotiations over a bill two years ago, he was so enraged by the comments of Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that he got in Cornyn's face and said, "F-- you!"
"The F.U. story, which was, like, how long ago?" Buchanan asked. "Yes, it happened, but can anyone give me any other circumstance on any subject where that happened [since then]? And, frankly, [Cornyn and McCain] work together; they campaigned for each other.... As you know, he is an impassioned guy, but he has never lost his temper in the last couple of years."
"To suggest that somehow or another that this ended up as a blown-up meeting and people were upset and that McCain was ranting or anything like that, I just don't think that is accurate or the truth."--Sen. Mel Martinez
Going forward, some of McCain's allies question whether Obama will be willing to lead on immigration, especially given what they saw as his failure to take risks to advance immigration reform when he was a senator. "He was AWOL most of the time," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Obama in an interview in July. "I learned a lot about Obama on immigration, and it wasn't good. I learned that to talk about bipartisan change and to stick by a bipartisan deal are two different things. He came by several times, more [for] the photo ops. The only time he came by, he wanted to re-litigate something that had already been decided."
Asked recently whether he would be surprised that McCain's feelings about Hispanic voters and immigration legislation sound very raw, Graham, who also took risks in backing the legislation, which was very unpopular in South Carolina, said: "John understands politics. But he is a human being, like all of us, and it is disappointing because he really was the driving force on the Republican side... to produce a bill that would solve this problem. And the groups that were cheering him on were gone when he needed them."
Hispanics gave Obama a whopping 67 percent of their votes, more than double the 31 percent they gave to McCain. A former colleague of McCain's, Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who opposed immigration reform, told National Journal, "John risked a lot to go out there and do what he did. They basically turned their back on him, a guy who had done a lot more for them than Barack Obama ever would. So I can understand his anger, but I also know that John doesn't get over things easily."
But Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said in an interview that Hispanics' support for Obama was not a repudiation of McCain, who is highly regarded in the Latino community, but a repudiation of the Republican Party. "His party was his worst enemy in trying to reach out to the Latino community," Becerra said. "Left to his own devices, I think Senator McCain could have done very, very well -- and still could do well -- in the Latino community."
Martinez, upon learning -- in his words -- that National Journal was "getting a story that people were upset" about McCain's behavior at last month's meeting, called to elaborate on his earlier comments. "He did not offend people in that room," Martinez declared. "It was a cordial meeting. And, I think as I told you, John made his point about 'Obama needs to deliver, just like he promised that he would,' and that kind of thing. But, I mean, to suggest that somehow or another that this ended up as a blown-up meeting and people were upset and that McCain was ranting or anything like that, I just don't think that is accurate or the truth.
"I just don't want you to get misled by someone who is trying to screw McCain here, frankly, because he doesn't deserve it," Martinez added.
This article appears in the April 4, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.