WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain, a history buff, often gazes at the portraits of past chairmen that line the paneled walls of his Senate Commerce Committee, wondering whether, like most of them, he'll be forgotten.
Deep down, aides say, the hard-charging senator is driven by a desire to avoid becoming just another wall fixture in the elegantly subdued Senate chambers - and instead create a legacy that lasts.
The motivation explains why Senator McCain, the war hero-turned-Republican presidential contender, is so often willing to shatter the staid Senate culture and offend colleagues as he crusades for favorite causes such as campaign-finance overhaul.
"[He] does what he believes is right, but he may not always do so in the most ... senatorial of manners," says longtime Senate staffer Mark Buse. "He's a fighter pilot, and he gets up there and fights."
Other senators, including McCain's handful of backers, put it more bluntly: "He riles people," says ally and fellow Arizonan Sen. Jon Kyl.
On the campaign trail, many voters are apparently enamored with McCain's image as a maverick of proven courage who's willing to take on a Washington he believes is corrupted by special-interest money.
Yet on Capitol Hill, views of McCain are at best mixed. He is widely respected as a decorated veteran, but openly disdained by some GOP colleagues, who say that he represents a lot of bluster, a little hypocrisy, and few major legislative accomplishments.
As his presidential prospects rise, McCain's 17-year congressional career is coming under greater scrutiny as a gauge of his leadership ability, persuasiveness, and political style. In short, it could hold clues to what the white-haired senior senator from Arizona would be like as President McCain.
McCain's detractors in the Senate, and indeed in much of Washington's Republican establishment, say that his blunt-spoken, in-your-face style is simply not presidential.
"His leadership style is ill-equipped for the presidency," says Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R) of Arkansas. "He rubs people the wrong way, and instead of building consensus, he too often uses sarcasm. You need a president who's going to bring the country together and bring Congress together."
Senator Hutchinson notes that he is one of 38 Republican senators who have endorsed Gov. George W. Bush, with another seven leaning in that direction - whereas only four GOP senators have endorsed McCain.
Candor - not congeniality
Yet McCain's trusty "gang of four" says their man is running for president, not for "Miss Congeniality" in the Senate. McCain's tell-it-like-it-is candor is something voters are looking for in a chief executive, they say. "People like a straight-talker," says Kyl. "When they see someone shaking up [Washington] they like it."
Kyl acknowledges McCain's legendary temper and occasional surliness, but says they would be muted by the presidency. "The office has a tendency to kind of shave off the rough edges."
While friends and foes clash over whether he would make a good president, their comments reflect a broad agreement over what kind of a senator he is.
As a personality, they say, McCain is rebellious by nature, often brushing aside the unspoken Senate code of decorum. Intensely loyal to his few Senate friends, he generally shuns the posh Washington social circuit.
Instead, an energetic workaholic, McCain begins his Monday-to-Thursday Washington week at around 7 a.m., when he arrives at the office before staff to read the papers. They end most nights with a working dinner of pizza and salad in his office. He heads to his Crystal City, Va., home by about 9 p.m.
Ideologically, McCain has had a solidly conservative voting record, with high scores for party loyalty. He has steadfastly opposed abortion rights and gun control, while supporting increases in military funding and cuts in government spending. Still, McCain has an independent streak, colleagues say. He is clearly willing - sometimes unpredictably - to break from the pack in a way that irks Republican leaders: most notably on his failed 1998 bid to raise tobacco taxes and longstanding efforts in the 1990s to overhaul the campaign-finance system.
"McCain is working counter to the values of most Republicans," says the spokeswoman for Sen. Paul Coverdale (R) of Georgia, Bush's point man in the Senate.
'A' for average
As for legislative accomplishments, as chairman since 1997 of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain has chalked up an average list of achievements.
Recently, for example, he has shepherded through bills to limit liability to companies from Y2K-related lawsuits, improve truck and bus safety, protect the privacy of children online, place a moratorium on Internet taxes, and designate a universal 911 emergency number.
"I don't think he has made a big footprint in the US Senate," says Hutchinson. But McCain's defenders point out that much of his major work has been on difficult reform issues, or in efforts to block wasteful spending.
"A lot of times you have to play defense, and that is what John does," says Kyl. "Fighting pork is a rear-guard action."
Indeed, friends and critics alike call McCain a tenacious reformer - even to a fault - on issues such as the influence of money in politics. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens nicknames McCain "the sheriff" for lambasting members' pet projects. Other senators are appalled at how they say McCain indiscriminately decries their spending. "In terms of pork-fighting, he uses a shotgun instead of a rifle, he attacks broadly without researching the specifics," says Hutchinson.
Examples of reforms McCain saw passed into law include restricting gifts to senators from special-interest lobbyists and the 1996 presidential line-item veto aimed at trimming pork spending. However, the line-item veto, which McCain calls his chief reform success so far, was struck down by the courts. Victory has eluded him on the prickly issue that perhaps best defined his past several years in the Senate: campaign-finance overhaul, including a ban on the "soft money" donations to political parties.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society