Davos Notes: John McCain Bites My Head Off

It was snowing heavily outside in Davos, but things got pretty heated inside a small dining room in the rustic Rinaldi Hotel where, Saturday morning, roughly 20 journalists from around the world had gathered around a rectangular table for an informal, on-the-record discussion with John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

There was talk of Iran, China (blogged here by BusinessWeek's Bruce Nussbaum), a growing trend toward protectionism, and, of course, Iraq.

Toward the end of the conversation, I raised my hand and asked McCain:

"Given that you've said that you are 'scared to death that it's going to be a very hot spring in Afghanistan,' and given that you have also said, repeatedly, that only a substantial increase in troops in Iraq would make a real difference, why not send the 21,000 troops headed to Iraq, in what is clearly an act of desperation, to Afghanistan instead?"

During his response, McCain equated those opposing his position with "the far left."

"Do you consider Sam Brownback part of the far left?" I jumped in.

The Senator flared and told me that if I'd only let him finish his answer instead of interrupting, we could have "a civil discussion."

He then continued on about why he supports the escalation (see his speech to the AIE if you need a refresher). Along the way, he denied that he had used the phrase "the far left."

Wow, I thought, the Straight Talk Express has run so far off the rails McCain is now denying things he'd said in front of close to two-dozen note-taking journalists not half-a-minute before.

I pressed on: "You keep presenting the Iraq debate in terms of left vs right and Democrat vs Republican, when there are clearly major rifts in your own party over the direction we should take. And you yourself have changed your mind about the number of troops we need."

With a growing edge in his voice, McCain explained that he had sat down with General Patraeus. "He looked me in the eye," said McCain, "and told me 'I can do it with 21,000. And if I can't, I'll ask for more.'" McCain went on to say he believes that in a country of 300 million we should be able to have a large enough volunteer army to do whatever we need to do.

"That's all very good in theory," I replied, "but, in practice, where are these additional troops going to come from? And you keep saying that the American people are 'frustrated' about Iraq, which totally minimizes the outrage there is at continuing to be mislead by this administration."

He had clearly had it with me and told me that since what I had just said was a statement and not a question, he didn't have to respond.

He took a couple more questions and got up to leave. Then -- back in touch with the gracious John McCain so many of us fell in love with in 2000 -- he went out of his way to come over to me, shake my hand, and wish me well.

Suddenly, with McCain out of the room, the debate in the room shifted away from Iraq and onto McCain's temper - with the consensus being summed up by Anatol Kaletsky of the London Times: "It appears that his short fuse will become a problem for him during the campaign."

Indeed, if he loses his temper over being called out for marginalizing opposition to Iraq as "far left" (the hoariest of GOP talking points), this is going to be a really long campaign trail for John McCain - offering anyone with a cellphone camera endless opportunities to make their mark on YouTube.