WORTH THE FIGHTING FOR: A Conversation with John McCain

Thursday, November 7, 2002

John McCain has spent a lifetime in the service of his country, including twenty-two years as a naval aviator, two terms in the House of Representatives, and service in the U.S. Senate since 1986. Following his 2000 presidential campaign and the hard-fought passage of his campaign finance bill, John McCain reflects on a life in politics in his recent memoir Worth the Fighting for. A lifelong Republican, Senator McCain has broken with his party's mainstream on a number of issues in recent years. Does John McCain still consider himself a conservative? And why does McCain so often play the maverick?

Recorded on Thursday, November 7, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, the making of a political maverick.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson, our show today: a conversation with Senator John McCain.

John McCain has spent a lifetime of service to this nation. Born to a distinguished Naval family, he himself went on to spend 22 years as a Naval aviator. In 1967 he was shot down over Vietnam and spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war, often subjected to torture. When McCain retired from the Navy in 1981 he settled in Arizona, served two terms in the House of Representatives, then won the Senate seat once held by Barry Goldwater. Although a lifelong Republican, McCain has often broken with his party, earning himself a reputation with which he says he's not completely comfortable, as a maverick. In 2000 McCain ran against George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in a contest that was often bitter. Now John McCain has reflected on his lifetime of service in a new book, Worth the Fighting For.

Title: The McCain Mutiny

Peter Robinson: Russell Baker in the New York Review of Books, in a review of Worth the Fighting For: "McCain keeps saying that he remains a conservative, but this book does nothing to confirm it. It is the work of someone who has found out rather late in life who he is and what he truly believes." Senator, you have gone through half a dozen major life experiences, why are you finding out rather late in life who you are and what you believe?

John McCain: Well, I'm not sure I totally agree with Russell Baker, I…

Peter Robinson: You're allowed...

John McCain: Yeah, I found out a lot of things when I served--when I spent time in prison in Hanoi. But I've learned a lot through the political process, and as I've tried to point out in the book, I've learned from people that I respect and admired, particularly in the political arena. Scoop Jackson was a very bipartisan person on national defense; Mo Udall I've loved as much as any person as I've ever known; Barry Goldwater, very independent and outspoken. So…

Peter Robinson: Let me try to draw a bead on your politics, Senator. So in your book you write that Teddy Roosevelt was your greatest political hero. You also write of Ronald Reagan: "No one had a more pronounced influence on my political convictions than Ronald Reagan." Well, there you have it right there. T.R. is the progressive; he believed in activist government. Ronald Reagan is the classic conservative; skeptical of every step the government takes. How do you reconcile your admiration for those two?

John McCain: I think that what Ronald Reagan had was a sincerity and an honesty about his convictions and at the same time he was very pleasant to one and all--the famous stories of him and Tip O'Neill who was a left wing liberal and he a strong conservative--that they used to fight all day and then have drinks and swap stories together in the evening. I admired Ronald Reagan for many things including, his role he played in winning the Cold War, support of a strong national defense, his national security positions, etc., and I do believe there was a time for Ronald Reagan. I believe that before Ronald Reagan there was excesses on the liberal side of government--fiscal indiscipline, larger, ever-increasing role of government. And then I think perhaps we may have gone too far in the other direction.

Peter Robinson: You admire Ronald Reagan; you admire Barry Goldwater, set that to one side. Now listen to this: George Will, one of your great fans, on the tobacco bill that you supported--you more than supported it you were instrumental in seeing the passage of that bill--quote, "The tobacco bill was to compensate government which actually makes money from smoking by punishing a legal industry for selling legal products to people supposedly not responsible for the foolish decisions Joe Camel made them make." All right, so, would Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan have patted you on the back and said 'John, well done' about the tobacco bill?

John McCain: I think if they accepted the premise that this is a very harmful substance and enticing young people to use it and using all kinds of different enticements to get them addicted to it, I think that at least they would have respected my point of view.

Peter Robinson: Here's what I'm getting at: Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Goldwater, what you admire is one reading of your book--it's my reading so far, you can correct me, is dynamism, animal vitality, goodness and bigness of heart, willingness to shake up the established order. Now what that makes you is a dynamic and interesting character but not necessarily by any means a conservative. You going to buy that?

John McCain: I have to say that I think that there are very legitimate ways of reading some of the things I've done that way. But I also view some of it as a process of maturation, a better understanding of some of the issues, and also the country changes. I think Ronald Reagan was perfect for his time. We were not doing well in the Cold War, there were too much excesses of liberalism, certainly in my view in America. And he brought the pendulum back. I also believe there was a time for Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt was a reformer because there was corruption in the land. If there hadn't been so much corruption I'm not sure that Teddy Roosevelt--he might have had the same feelings--but I don't think he would have succeeded. There was some time somebody came on the American scene to take on the robber barons.

Peter Robinson: Okay. From robber barons it's just a small step to the Charles Keating scandal.

Title: The Buck Shops Here

Peter Robinson: Charles Keating and the so-called Keating Five, four Democrats and John McCain. You write I'm quoting you again, "I would very much like to think that I have never been a man whose favor could be bought. From my earliest youth I would have considered such a reputation to be the most shameful ignominy imaginable. Yet that is exactly how millions of Americans viewed me for a time--a time that I will forever consider one of the worst experiences of my life." Fill in the dots. Get us from the Keating scandal to your passionate embrace of campaign finance reform.

John McCain: I was always in favor of campaign finance reform. I worked with former Senator David Boren on the issues. And I was always a reformer. I created the appearance of impropriety, as you just said--five Senators meeting with regulators on behalf of a major contributor. I can't excuse it to you. I can tell you--I mean, I can't give you a good reason for it, I can give you lots of excuses and how I said I don't want any special favors for this guy and all that but we created the appearance of impropriety.

Peter Robinson: And at the time it struck you as just the way things were done?

John McCain: I was very uncomfortable with it.

Peter Robinson: Oh, you were uncomfortable with it at the time?

John McCain: Oh yes, but I did it. It doesn't matter whether I was uncomfortable or not, I did it, but it was, again something that probably was reinforced in spades--and that is, it's not only what you do in politics it's what you appear to do. So like in campaign financing and big money donors: it's not only corruption, it's the appearance of corruption.

Peter Robinson: So you come out of that experience and one of the thoughts you have is doggone it, members of the Senate of the United States ought not to be put in a position like that.

John McCain: Or put themselves in a position like that, yes.

Peter Robinson: All right, but those are two different arguments Senator. I mean, the first argument, 'the system ought not to put us in that position,' does with a trip and a leap lead to campaign finance reform. But the second argument that the Senators ought not to put themselves in that position themselves leads to saying throw a bunch of those bums out and elect guys who don't behave that way. Do you see what I'm saying?

John McCain: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: And a lot of conservatives will say, wait a minute, we didn't need campaign finance reform, we needed a little old fashioned rectitude.

John McCain: Well I think that's true, but you see I think the present system makes good people do bad things. I think…

Peter Robinson: It does.

John McCain: Yeah. I think that when the pharmaceutical companies in this last election spent $20 million protecting by giving ads under the name of United Seniors or something like that this particular Congressman or Senator was in favor of real good program for prescription drugs when they opposed a bill that would make generic drugs more accessible. Then those people are beholden to the pharmaceutical industry. And the pharmaceutical industry therefore has influence. When the following events take place we have an amendment coming up, one by me and one by a Democrat that says stock options should be expensed. A guy who contributed $760,000 to the Democratic Party picks up the phone and calls the Democratic majority leader and says I don't want that to pass. McCain brings up the amendment. The amendment is blocked from being voted on. Then the Democrat brings up a similar amendment and the Republican leadership blocks that amendment from ever being voted on. And everybody knew it--when I say everybody, Alan Greenspan, Warren Buffet, and Paul Volcker believe the stock options ought to be treated as an expense. Whose interests were being served then? The rich guys in Silicon Valley? The guys like Larry Ellison that cashed in $734 million in stock options in one year--while stock went in the tank and they laid off people? Or, was his interest served or were the interests of the American people and his employees served?

Peter Robinson: You do a pretty good Theodore Roosevelt Senator. You are pretty good at that.

Peter Robinson: Let me propose another approach to this campaign finance problem: less regulation, not more.

Title: Let the Sunshine In

Peter Robinson: Here's a proposal I'll put to you and you tell me what's wrong with it: anybody ought to be able to give any amount of money to any candidate he wants as long as it's made public on the internet within twenty-four hours. So in the 2000 election, Colin Powell, or John McCain could have called a press conference, stood in front of 20 people, all of their faces on camera and said 'ladies and gentlemen each of these people behind me has donated $1 million to my campaign, I'm running for President, I promise no special favors to them, and I invite you to watch me. What would have been wrong with that?

John McCain: That is then based on the premise of the opponents of campaign finance reform that money is free speech. The United States Supreme Court has said money is not free speech; money is property. If you accept that money is free speech then the richest and wealthiest powerful influences in America then have the megaphone and average citizens without money are sitting in the back and not heard. And that's exactly the way it is today.

Peter Robinson: So you're confident that when McCain-Feingold makes its way to the United States Supreme Court, as it no doubt will, they're not going to gut it?

John McCain: I believe that they will not. I'm not positive, particularly about some provisions of the bill, the so called Snowe-Jeffords amendment which prevents thirty days before primary and sixty days before a general that advertisements be run that are funded by unlimited amounts of money. In other words restricts the amount of money. And let me just clarify one thing for you, really…

Peter Robinson: Sure. Please.

John McCain: …it has never been held anything but constitutional there's a limit on the amount of money that I can raise. No matter how much you support me, according to the law--and the new law now, it used to be $1,000--now you can only give me $2,000 for my primary and $2,000 for my general election right. But these outside interests now, even though there's laws on the books that say it's against the law for corporate contributions and union contributions--those people are able to exploit loopholes and get unlimited contributions. Somebody wants to give some corporation or some union $10 million and funnel it into my campaign, they can. So what we've done in this law is say no. If you want to give, you corporation, and you union want to give money, then you can only give it in the same amounts of money that individuals are allowed to give money to McCain.

Peter Robinson: You've lived a long and interesting life and I want to move on to other topics, but let me take one last on this campaign finance reform. I'd like to quote to you Nelson Polsby, one of the nation's leading political scientists who is a student of Congress and a Democrat, so this isn't a conservative attack--here's what Nelson Polsby said on this program not long ago, "The trouble with attacking soft money," McCain-Feingold he's talking about, "is that it attacks the political parties. It doesn't meant that if the political parties are no longer allowed to gather money, money will not be expended, it'll be expended, as independent expenditures by PACs; what's at stake is that the pattern of expenditures by parties is earlier on and on winnable elections but not necessarily won seats. PACs pattern of expenditure is late and on incumbents, so if you want to enhance political competition then you'll be against the regulation of soft money." There's a political scientist and a Democrat.

John McCain: Well, Mr. Polsby probably has either not paid attention to or deliberately ignores the fact that we have more incumbents elected under the present system, as it grows worse and worse, kept in office than ever before. So Mr. Polsby, so why is it then the present system that of 435 House seats there was like 15, 20 that were competitive? Part of it is redistricting…the other part of it is that none of them are vulnerable. They make themselves invulnerable. Of 34 Senate seats, how come only five or six were competitive and changed hands? Whereas in the 1980s when I first started running for office, there was no such thing as soft money and guess what--we used to have to go out and knock on doors, have armies of volunteers, set up phone banks da dah da dah da dah. Now, the whole game is get as much money as you can and run as many attack ads against your opponent as you can. And Mr. Polsby, Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 got corporate contributions outlawed--why? Because the robber barons were controlling American elections. In 1947 we outlawed union contributions. Those laws are still on the books. Why are they doing what they're doing? They're doing it because they've found loopholes and a federal election commission which is absolutely outrageous has opened those loopholes so they can be in violation of existing law.

Peter Robinson: On to a new topic: foreign policy, beginning with a little not-so-ancient history.

Title: Big Trouble in Little Korea

Peter Robinson: October 19, 1994, Clinton Administration announces its agreement with North Korea and John McCain says, and I quote you, this is not your book, but I'm quoting you to yourself, "On at least eight previous occasions, North Korea has lied to the Clinton Administration. With this agreement, administration officials have willingly acquiesced in Pyongyang's almost certain further deception. Yet again the administration has mistaken resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis with merely postponing its apogee." Why did the President of the United States and his great big foreign policy apparatus miss what you saw?

John McCain: I think that there was an understandable desire to avoid a confrontation, number one. I think there was the same argument that was used in the 1930s against the British government of Neville Chamberlain, although certainly the stakes weren't as high as they were then. And I think also that the North Koreans were pretty clever in how they did it, and as much as I admire former President Carter--and I do for his post-presidency behavior and…

Peter Robinson: A very fine former President.

John McCain: His post-presidency behavior has been wonderful. He played a big role too. He flew to Pyongyang and came out and said everything is going to be fine. Yet these people, their records showed that they would not be telling the truth and they would continue this…

Peter Robinson: Was it wishful thinking or shrewd political calculation that that was a can they just wanted kick down the road and let somebody else deal with later?

John McCain: I have to believe that it was a good faith effort--that they were just deceived. I don't think they intentionally kicked the can down the road. These men, and I don't know of any woman who was involved in that at that particular time--are honorable people who were patriotic, I just think they were guilty of gross misjudgment.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Another episode in the Clinton years: five months after the ambush of U.S. Army Rangers in Mogadishu--George Bush the elder sends troops in on a humanitarian mission to Somalia, Clinton takes office, some of our Rangers get killed in Mogadishu--Clinton orders the troops home. Now, 11 days after that ambush--that is some months before he orders the troops home--John McCain sponsors a piece of legislation in the Senate calling for the prompt and orderly withdrawal of our forces. In his book, John McCain writes, "Somewhere in the Sudan, Osama Bin Laden observed our withdrawal from Somalia and concluded that America no longer had the stomach for war." You have changed your position on reflection--the Clinton Administration did right, did wrong? I'm willing to give you the benefit of hindsight; did you miss Osama Bin Laden? Did the Clinton Administration--did everybody miss it? Should we have known more than we did at the time?

John McCain: All of us should have known more than we did at the time but in the particular case of Somalia, we went in there on the auspices of the U.N.--not the United States of America--and the purpose was to feed hungry people. Then the United Nations, with America and a retired Navy admiral decided that we would go warlord hunting. And then the attitude of the people towards the military forces in the area went from welcoming to one of outright hostility to the point where they were going on these kidnapping missions. And also there was a request from the Secretary of Defense of the United States to send more and better equipment with which to protect our troops. That was turned down. That request was rejected. So therefore, when the crisis came, they didn't have the equipment necessary--they had to borrow tanks from, I think it was the Egyptians that they finally had to borrow tanks from in order to go in and finally get our people out. It was a classic case of mission creep. And that's why it was time to get out of there--because the original mission of feeding hungry people had failed, and then the mission it had morphed into of kidnapping warlords is just a crazy cockamamie idea in a place like Mogadishu. And you see that's why I wanted us out. Look at the example of Bosnia, early on…

Peter Robinson: Broadly speaking you supported Clinton in Yugoslavia and Bosnia?

John McCain: Yes I did, but the problem in Bosnia, it was the United Nations' operation to start with. One of the most terrible embarrassment--scandals in history was the Dutch U.N. soldiers in Srebrenica and the Serbian general comes in and they clink glasses having a drink meanwhile the Serbian troops are taking thousands of men, women and children out--ethnic cleansing, raping and murdering them. But because the Dutch colonel did not have the military force to stop the Serbians from doing it--when it went from a United Nations mission to a NATO mission, that's when things became effectively carried out. And yes I supported those and I think the United States is very correct in stopping genocide and acts of incredible inhumanity wherever they take place.

Peter Robinson: So what would John McCain put on Bill Clinton's foreign policy report card?

Title: This Is Only a Test

Peter Robinson: Give William Jefferson Clinton a grade as Commander in Chief.

John McCain: I'd probably give him a "C" to a "B" and let me tell you why. He played a very key role in the Irish peace process. He played a marvelous role there.

Peter Robinson: It doesn't bother you that that's unraveled lately?

John McCain: No, because I think they've gone too far. I think it'll still be recovered. I think that he developed very good relations with our European allies, I think he was helpful in NATO, but, I think in other areas--my problem with Bill Clinton was that he was so feckless. He didn't ever focus his time and attention completely on foreign policy issues because Bill Clinton needed instant gratification. And this made him not have a very steadfast approach, which other great presidents have in my view.

Peter Robinson: All right, now grade another Commander in Chief who, by my reading, has shown considerably more focus: George W. Bush. Give him a grade since September 11th.

John McCain: "A."

Peter Robinson: "A?"

John McCain: Yeah. "A minus," let me say "A minus." The…

Peter Robinson: That "A"--we couldn't let that stand.

John McCain: The minus is that he has not, perhaps, followed the dictum of Teddy Roosevelt about talking softly and carrying a big stick. We've got to be much less aggressive in that we want to be much less confrontational with our allies.

Peter Robinson: Time Magazine, you wrote recently: "Change must also", this is not just Iraq, "Change must also come to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, the Palestinian authority and wherever nations are ordered to exalt the few at the expense of the many." Senator, how big a war do you want?

John McCain: I don't mean that we act militarily. I mean that we should absolutely insist with our economic, cultural, diplomatic and every other superiority that nations make progress towards the realization of the rights of all human beings on this earth no matter where they live. And for the Saudis to spend their money on the madrasas, who take kids off the street and teach them the hate and destruction of western values and civilization to me is unconscionable. And I think as long as there's young men standing on street corners with worry beads, with no hope, no job, no democracy, no opportunity, you're going to have acts of terror because they're going to breed them.

Peter Robinson: And is that a message proper to a member of the United States Senate but not necessarily to the President? That is to say if he'd be rattling everybody all over the Middle East if he signed onto that quotation saying we want dramatic change in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt…

John McCain: I'm not even saying dramatic change. I think the Saudis--why don't we start out by letting a woman ride in the front seat of a car, you know? That would be a major breakthrough. I'm saying that we are dominant--not just militarily, and you can't force a country militarily--unless they pose a threat to the United States of America--but what you can do is you can exercise a tremendous amount of influence on their people. We have every right to expect progress in Saudi Arabia. We have every right to expect progress in Egypt. We're giving the Egyptians $2 billion a year.

Peter Robinson: And has the Administration done an adequate job of holding them to it?

John McCain: No.

Peter Robinson: Time for some final thoughts from John McCain on his lifetime of public service.

Title: Citizen McCain

Peter Robinson: We've talked a little bit at the beginning about contradictions in your character or at least in your political life. You spent five and a half years of your life as a POW, going through things that haven't--don't even care to describe to my children, don't like to imagine--I don't know how you did it, and any time you want me to shine your shoes, believe me I will. But that didn't turn you into a pacifist. On the contrary, throughout your political career, I have to say; on domestic policy I can't quite figure out the consistency in McCain's record--but on foreign policy and on defense, you have been a rock. How do you square those two? You don't regret what you went through, do you feel it gives you moral authority?

John McCain: No, I feel I have no more moral authority than any other elected official. I do have the benefit of experience and study over an entire lifetime and talking to the smartest people in the world. Having the privilege of sitting down with people like Henry Kissinger and Zbig Brzezinski and Lee Kuan Yew and a whole lot of smart people in this world. But you see, my role model, Teddy Roosevelt had this sense of America's greatness and America was a better world. He's the one that saw the potential for America in the twentieth century. And I believe, and I don't compare myself favorably with Theodore Roosevelt, but I see the sense of America's greatness. We've reached the stage in the world where we can be the greatest force for good. And we were founded on the noblest principles. We don't want to take over any of these countries, we're not interested in an American empire, but we are interested in the furtherance of the fundamental human rights that we are blessed with in the United States of America. And therefore we have the potential to do it, and therefore we should continue that. And you can't do it without, from time to time, as rarely as possible acting militarily.

Peter Robinson: Senator, it's television, alas, so we've got to wrap it up. Clare Boothe Luce is famous for having remarked that history gives no man more than one sentence. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Winston Churchill faced down Hitler. Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. What sentence would you like history to give to John McCain?

John McCain: He served his country.

Peter Robinson: Senator, thank you very much.

John McCain: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson, for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.