Cochran recounts McCain dustup with the Sandinistas

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 1, 2008 

— Notably mild-mannered Republican Sen. Thad Cochran shocked many earlier this year with comments about John McCain's volatile temper. He has since mended fences with the GOP presidential nominee.

But as first reported at sunherald.com today, Cochran told the Sun Herald that he witnessed a confrontation between McCain and a Sandinista rebel decades ago where McCain "got mad at the guy and he just reached over there and snatched him."

Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972 and then to the U.S. Senate in 1978, Cochran, a consummate gentleman, measures his words and his actions carefully. But he said something that surprised many in a Boston Globe article in January about his longtime Senate colleague McCain.

"The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine," Cochran told the Globe. "He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me."

The two senators have made peace since the remarks. Cochran said McCain included him on a recent campaign visit to Meridian. He told the Sun Herald on Monday that McCain, whose ancestors lived in north Mississippi, is the best man for the job.

But Cochran said he observed McCain engage in a physical confrontation with a Sandinista while participating in a diplomatic mission led by Sen. Bob Dole and others in the fall of 1987. Cochran, McCain - who had won election to the Senate the year before after serving in the House - and other members of a bipartisan committee of lawmakers called the Central American Negotiations Observer Group - met with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, head of the left wing political party known as "Sandinistas," about tensions in the region.

The atmosphere was tense, as the U.S. was pressing the countries involved "pretty hard." Cochran noticed a disturbance at the meeting table in a room lined with armed personnel.

"McCain was down at the end of the table and we were talking to the head of the guerilla group here at this end of the table and I don't know what attracted my attention," Cochran said. "But I saw some kind of quick movement at the bottom of the table and I looked down there and John had reached over and grabbed this guy by the shirt collar and had snatched him up like he was throwing him up out of the chair to tell him what he thought about him or whatever. I don't know what he was telling him but I thought, good grief everybody around here has got guns and we were there on a diplomatic mission. I don't know what had happened to provoke John but he obviously got mad at the guy and he just reached over there and snatched him."

There were no punches thrown and the two sat back down. The man, who appeared to be ruffled after the confrontation with McCain, was an associate of Ortega's, possibly a lieutenant, but Cochran said he was unsure of his identity.

Flash forward 21 years. Tuesday, McCain was traveling in Central America and he made a stop in Colombia. In 2006, Ortega won his office back after losing a 1990 election.

Cochran, who was in South Mississippi this week, said he supports McCain, who has turned into the best presidential candidate he could have imagined. Now McCain is levelheaded, Cochran said.

He believes McCain, whom he described as courageous, hardworking and better equipped to handle the nation's current challenges, is a better choice for president than Democrat Barack Obama, who has touted himself as a candidate for change.

"OK, worry about the wrong kind of change, and whether or not this might be too much change some of which we don't need in maturity and lack of experience, in untested, unknowns," Cochran said. "There are just too many unknowns and we are at a precarious position right now in the world economy and in the international security area. We need somebody who is familiar with all of our resources and not afraid to lead. I just think we're going to come down to saying, 'Well, we better stay with somebody who has been there awhile and has the maturity of years and experiences like John McCain does.'

Cochran response In response to a request for more information about the McCain-Sandinista incident, Cochran spokeswoman Margaret McPhillips released the following statement:

"I think Sen. Cochran went in to as much detail yesterday as is necessary to make the point that, though Sen. McCain has had problems with his temper, he has overcome them. Though Sen. Cochran saw the incident he described to you, decades have passed since then and he wanted to make the point that over the years he has seen Sen. McCain mature into an individual who is not only spirited and tenacious but also thoughtful and levelheaded. As Sen. Cochran said yesterday, he believes Sen. McCain has developed into the best possible candidate for President."

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