Recent reports have Sen. McCain involved in a scuffle with a Sandinista during a 1987 Congressional Delegation visit to Nicaragua. I know that did not happen because I was there and recall vividly what McCain did and did not do.
As the Senior Director for Latin America on the National Security Council, I accompanied Senators Bob Dole (R-Kan.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to meet with Daniel Ortega in Managua. I was present during their meeting.
That meeting began — as most such meetings do — with minor pleasantries from both sides. Sen. Dole, as the delegation’s leader, spoke for a while, mainly reiterating the State Department-supplied talking points (i.e., arguing for “national reconciliation” and to “stop the bloodshed the Sandinistas should sit down with the Contras to find a negotiated solution to the conflict”, and so on).
Spanish is my native language, so I did not need a translator to understand what Daniel Ortega said in response to Sen. Dole. Much as we wanted the Sandinistas to negotiate with the Contras, (which they would not do because it would confer legitimacy on their adversaries) the Sandinistas were equally focused on negotiating with us which, for the same reason, we were not eager to do.
McCain’s moment came when Dole had finished his talking points and Ortega responded. The Sandinista said, “Senator, in our country we have a saying that claims that when one has to negotiate, one sits with the owner of the circus and not with the clowns. The Contras are the clowns and the US is the owner of the circus and that is why we want to negotiate with you and not with them.”
At that moment, Sen. McCain jumped up from his chair and started leaving the room. Ortega asked him where he was going and McCain responded: "I had not heard that saying before, but I find it very wise. That is why I am taking the first plane to Havana to negotiate with Castro because he is the owner of this circus and you are the clowns."
It was a verbal blow, not a physical one. And, from my standpoint, it was a rhetorical home run. There was no physical contact between McCain and any of the Sandinistas present.
Having spent five years at the United Nations I have attended hundreds of these bilateral meetings. Even when meeting with US friends and allies there is an unavoidable level of tension involved in the diplomatic horse trading process. These are exacerbated when meeting with delegations not friendly to us. That is why I will never forget McCain’s quick, direct, and accurate response to the Sandinista dictator. If this is an instance of what is disparaged as McCain’s "temper" then maybe we should wish for more of our politicians to display some of it when meeting those who wish us harm.
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