The recent contretemps between John McCain and Barack Obama has led to a number of people questioning the temperament of the Senior Senator from Arizona. Among these is Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, who is a well-known blogger, previously at Markarkleiman.com and now at http://www.samefacts.com. On February 7th he wrote a brief piece in which he said
Note to reporters: better put a "hold" on the McCain canonization until he finishes with his anger-management classes.
Since I have known Mark for more than 3 decades (we overlapped at Haverford College) I sent an email which has led to my involvement in this story. I will, below the fold, explain why I became involved, and what I have uncovered, as well as what else Mark has found. I will attempt to be fair to Sen. McCain, but I think there is enough of a picture emerging to demonstrate that his actions with respect to Sen. Obama are part of a larger pattern that raise at least to me a question about his temperament.
The problem was, when I went to search the Congressional Record online, I could not find anything. So I decided to post a request to the Library of Congress through their "ask a librarian" capability, and today I got this response:
We were able to locate Sen. John McCain's remarks in the Congressional Record concerning the medical records of retired Air Force sergeant Bob Johnson. McCain made the remarks on March 2, 1989, which we were able to find in the bound, print edition of the Congressional Record, Volume 135, Part 3, page 3279.
However, we were unable to locate this information in the online version of the Congressional Record on the THOMAS Web site http://thomas.loc.gov/. It appears that the March 2, 1989, edition of the Congressional Record on THOMAS is missing over 100 pages of text, including the page in which McCain discusses Jackson's medical records. We have submitted an error report to the technical staff responsible for maintaining the THOMAS site. Hopefully this omission will be corrected in the near future.
By the way, this message is slightly inaccurate, as the name of the sergeant was actually Jackson. The information is available in the printed version of the Congressional Record, but there is apparently no explanation for the gap in the online version. That gap is of course why I could not find the information by searching electronically.
I now have a copy of the page in question, as well as several contemporaneous news articles, from the NY Times and the Washington Post. The incident begins with front page stories in both papers on March 2nd in which Jackson's allegations about two visits to Bergstrom Air Force Base in the period 1976 through 1978 included reports of drunkenness and other inappropriate behavior. The Sergeant had made these charges in a letter to Sen. Sam Nunn, then chair of Armed Services, with oversight over the nomination. Jackson repeated the charges in interviews with the FBI. The Post story was written by Bob Woodward while the Times story had no byline.
Apparently McCain contacted the Air Force for rebuttal information, then went to the floor of the Senate to make the following remarks, which I will attempt to completely reproduce. Please note the following: "Berkstrom" is how it appears in the Record, as is the apparent typo "psychiatric".
Mr. President, I have some information I think would be very interesting to the Members of this body and others concerning the allegation that was printed on the front page of the Washington Post this morning concerning an allegation made by a retired Technical Sergeant Jackson concerning some alleged behavior on the part of Senator John Tower during some period between 1976 and 1978.
I remind my colleagues it was on the front page of the Washington Post. We have now received information that this individual's last duty was when he reported to Berkstrom Air Force Base on February 21, 1976. His last duty day was March 16, 1977. He was referred to the Wilford Hall Medical Centern for Psychological Evaluation and was later retired for psychiatric disability, and the details of that can be made available. He was permanently retired on April 19, 1978 for a psychiartic condition.
I also point out that the 12th Air Force Commander from June 1975 through June 1978 recalls John Tower to be in Berkstrom only once during the period, the first Saturday in August 1975 for an air show. That memory has been confirmed by the wing commander and vice wing commander and master chief of the Air Force.
Mr. President, the reason I am bringing this very important information to the attention of this body is that this allegation was obviously given great credibility by the media by being printed on the front page of the Washington Post. I think it clearly indicates there is no validity to that and very little we can do to repair the damage that is done by the allegation and I understand was going to be carried on national media tonight.
I hope it clears up the situation, and we will be glad to provide further details on this information we received.
There were followup stories in both the Post and the NY Times the following day. The Post story was on A-1, and was written by Dan Balz and Bob Woodward. It is important to note that these events are occurring after the Arfemd Services Committee had voted to reject the nomination, but before the entire Senate acted on march 9 in a similar fashion (I believe the final vote as 47-53). The Post story quotes Sens. Cohen and Nunn as saying that they had paid little attention to Jackson's charges, with the paragraph on Nunn reading
Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said last night" "This [Jackson's account] was merely one item was cumulative ofother information about Sen. Tower's excessive drinking in the 1970s, which both the White House and the nominee have now acknowledged, Therefore, this item was not a significant fact in my own thoughts or, I believe, in the committee's deliberations."
It is worth noting that McCain was a member of the committee. He had released a letter dated on March 2nd from the Air Force general counsel Anne N. Foreman sent to the minority (Republican) counsel of the committee. Let me continue with the Post story
Foreman's letter said military records show that Jackson was assigned to Bergstrom from February 21, 1976, until April 19, 1978. :On 21 March 1977 Sergeant Jackson was referred to Wilfred Hall Medical center for medical supervision and was subsequently placed on the Temporary Disability Retired List following medical and psychological evaluation," Foreman said.
The Physical Evaluation Board that evaluated Jackson concluded that he "exhibited symptoms of a mixed personality disorder with anti-social themes and hysterical features."
Foreman said that after March 21, 1977, Jackson was "unable to perform his duties" and was retired in April 1978.
This was the material with which McCain was dealing. Unfortunately it was not a complete and accurate portrayal, something made clear in the NY Times story of March 4 by David Rosenbaum entitled "Tower Accuser was Attacked by Omissions" and subtitled "Airman's Records Don't' Stress Mental Problem." This story appeared on page 8. It was based on a more complete set of the Sergeant's records obtained and released by Sam Nunn and John Warner (who was the ranking Republican on the Committee). While that record does reference a personality trait disorder, and I reproduce the operable paragraphs of the story that immediately followed:
But it concluded: "A review of available medical records fails to substantiate the presence of any neurosis or psychosis. There is evidence of a personality disorder marked by uncooperative behavior. Reliability may be a problem. My review of the member's personnel records reflects an average NCO who was generally well thought of, but who also had a tendency to be a little too aggressive and somewhat overly idealistic. He also seems to have consistently fallen short in the area of bearing and behavior, in the judgment of his superiors."
It was signed by Colonel Kenneth G. B. Joyce of the judge advocate's staff.
"Lesser of Two Evils
The evalution indicated that the sergeant was retired from the Air Force not for psychological reasons, as was suggested by the letter made public Thursday, but largely because of a bad knee and other physical problems.
Senator McCain, an Arizona Republican and a retired Navy captain, said in an interviewed today: "I'm sorry I had to do it, but weighed in the balance of assassination of a man's character, it was the lesser of two evils." He said he was still comfortable with what he hd done after seeing the full evaluation.
Thus McCain still thought his actions were justified. Let's examine this a bit further. If he wanted to discredit the Sergeant's report, would not the statement by the ranking officers about the only visit Tower made have been sufficient? Did not in fact McCain know that the committee had given little specific weight to this report, but also had ample evidence - acknowledged by both the White House and Tower himself - of serious drinking problems contemporaneous with this supposed incident? And in that case, how did even the false report of Sgt. Jackson represent an assassination of Tower's character? And where is McCain's retraction of the charge that Jackson was retired for psychological reasons? Granted, he was using incomplete information provided by the Air Force which implied (but apparently did not directly state) that the discharge was for such reasons. Once he learned that part of his statement was incorrect, why did he not withdraw or correct it?
The Times article quotes a lawyer named Ronald Plesser who helped write the 1974 Privacy Act and later served as general counsel of the Privacy Protection Study Commission. The story says that he described the release of the medical records as
"a clear violation of the spirit of the Privacy Act."
Only under extraordinary circumstances, said Mr. Plesser and other experts, can medical records be made public without the consent of the serviceman involved.
But in my first email to Mark Kleiman, I was unaware of the following, also from the same article:
Mr. McCain was not legally liable because the Privacy Act does not apply to members of Congress. Mr. Plesser said Pentagon officials probably also could not successfully be sued because they were responding to a request from Congress.
I know that Mark is pursuing at least one other incident demonstrating this pattern of behavior by McCain. From my standpoint, there was no justification for reading the medical information into the record, even had the statement been accurate and complete, which it was not. One wonders if the form of the request for information, which would have been made officially by minority counsel for the committee at McCain's behest, was so phrased that it engendered a document that could be interpreted the way McCain chose to characterize the information provided. Regardless, if his point was to discredit the allegation, one would think it was sufficient to offer the credible counter testimony by ranking officers about the impossibility of the allegation. That McCain chose to go further, and has never apologized for what he did, has always bothered me. I see it as a question of temperament, one again clearly displayed in how he reacted to Barack Obama this week.