John McCain

John McCain

During my June 19, 1999, interview with Arizona Sen. John McCain—running for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination—he was politely on guard, insisting that an aide be present. He folded his arms, listened and, in a voice that barely registers above a whisper, delivered cryptic, cautious answers for more than an hour.

In a hotel suite thirty floors above San Francisco, then-62-year old McCain was a long way from the so-called Hanoi Hilton, where he spent two years in solitary confinement as a prisoner captured and held by North Vietnamese communists during the Vietnam War.

His demeanor during the interview was revealing. The man who advocated government intervention of every facet of American life from using the Internet to operating a business, appeared most relaxed with contradictions—like the current president, he’s a pragmatist with a seriously underreported streak of old-time religion.

What is your highest personal value?

My family.

What is your favorite book?

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway, because it’s a story of sacrifice, heroism and commitment to a cause greater than oneself. It’s almost a modern epic.

What books are you reading?

Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, John Keegan’s The First World War and The Greedy Hand by Amity Shlaes, which is a good economic book.

Who is your greatest hero?

My father.

You and your wife, Cindy, adopted your daughter, Bridget, after Cindy visited Mother Teresa. Does Mother Teresa personify virtue?

Yes, absolutely. It was her selflessness—her radiation of goodness and piety.

Duty is one your chief campaign themes. Is duty the highest virtue?

As long as it’s a cause that’s greater than one’s self-interest. Duty is your inherently moral obligations to country and to your fellow citizen and to your family. The important thing is to live up to those lofty goals, recognizing that we are imperfect and may never achieve them. The reward is the attempt as well as the result.

Apply that principle to the situation in Kosovo; should altruism be the guiding principle of our foreign policy?

There’s always a tug between realpolitik and Wilsonian principles, which embody altruism—but, more than helping others, to spread the principles of democracy and freedom throughout the world. There’s always a contradiction. Our interests were also at risk in Kosovo because of the destabilizing effect of the ethnic cleansing. Not only were our Judeo-Christian principles offended by [Slobodan] Milosevic but our interests were also threatened. But it’s not only the pursuit of principles—there’s a practical element as a determining factor.

What made Kosovo, as you claim, “worth fighting for”?

Our interests and our values were both at risk.

How do you respond to those Republicans who claim foreign action must be determined primarily by our national interest?

If you allow the Milosevics of this world to carry out atrocities, other Milosevics, in the Balkans and elsewhere, will be encouraged. Those critics will find it more difficult to hold that position as we uncover more atrocities.

Would a Chinese invasion of Taiwan be an act of war?

[Lengthy pause.] I would not consider it an act of war against the United States because Taiwan is not part of the United States, but, I would consider it an act of such a provocative level that I would attempt to assist Taiwan through the supply of material, arms, a ballistic missile defense capability in order to help them remain free and not be absorbed by China in direct violation of the Shanghai communique, which is the law since 1973. Short of sending U.S. troops, I would do everything I can.

You criticized President Clinton for saying from the outset that he would not send U.S. ground troops into Kosovo. Aren’t you saying the same in regard to Taiwan?

If I had committed the United States to bombing China.

You’ve said that North Korea poses the greatest danger—

They pose a great danger in the region but the greatest challenge in the region is our relationship with China. But, at the moment, North Korea poses the most immediate military threat because they’re continuing to provoke the South Koreans.

What would you do as president to protect against the North Korean missile threat to the U.S.?

I would devote as much effort as possible to a ballistic missile defense system that could counter threats such as Korea and other rogue nations. Second, I would impose every possible sanction on North Korea and I would work with the Chinese to improve that relationship to get them to exercise influence over North Korea.The one country the North Koreans listen to is China.

Do you favor a national missile defense program like the Strategic Defense Initiative?

I don’t anticipate a system that is global in nature because there’s not the threat that there was at the time of the Soviet Union but what’s compelling about it as we see the continued existence of these rogue states and their efforts to acquire both the missiles and the weapons of mass destruction is that we obtain some defensive capabilities.

You’ve said that the Communists during the Cold War were “evil, but not irrational.” Isn’t evil also irrational?

No. Sometimes the most evil people are very rational because what makes them a great threat is that they react in a rational fashion, but their objectives are greater threats in some ways than those who act irrationally. Neither you nor I would contemplate meeting whatever creator we happen to believe in for the sake of destroying a nation.

Do you favor the creation of a Palestinian state?

I favor a long term resolution of this process, which entails a Palestinian entity but the modalities of that are something that goes in the peace process. In other words, if I say I’m in favor of a Palestinian state, without knowing how you get there, that tips the balance in favor of the Palestinians. Palestinians have right to their homeland.

Are you saying the Palestinians have a right to the land that they claim as theirs?

Not nearly as much because they have claimed everything. They have claimed all of it. In fact, there are still maps in the Palestinians authority that don’t show the existence of the state of Israel. Where I differ with the [ Clinton] Administration is that I think we should move forward to a conclusive peace agreement that settles all questions, including Jerusalem and location of the capital. The Palestinian situation is directly related to their willingness to understand Israel’s right to exist with guaranteed borders. It’s incorrect for those of us who are supporters of Israel to maintain a position that the issue of a Palestinian state is one of the issues that has to be resolved in the overall peace process.

So you are not opposed in principle to a Palestinian state?

No more than I am opposed to them preventing the capital of Israel being in Jerusalem. That’s a fundamental aspect of this. I would not be opposed to an overall settlement that recognizes the fact that the Palestinian people have a right to a country or a homeland or something like that but I would be very reluctant to state at this point in the negotiations that they have a right to that because that then brings them to the negotiating table with inordinate leverage. My policy would be to move forward with a peace settlement and everything is on the table but for me to commit to saying, “OK, you’ve got to have a state to start with before we resolve all those other issues” is not a practical way to address the issue. There has been a gradual but steady erosion of the Israeli position throughout this land for peace process which is why I think we’ve got to bring it to an agreement that determines the status of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and all of these other issues rather than this piecemeal process. Israel is in a much weaker position now than it was in the 1970s.

Should we recognize Vietnam as a trading partner?


Do you believe there are still U.S. Prisoners of War (POWs) in southeast Asia?

There has been no evidence that there are Americans alive in southeast Asia. We should continue our efforts to be fully certain of that. Whenever there is an assertion that there’s an American anywhere in southeast Asia, we should pursue that but I have seen no evidence in these 26 years.

Were Jane Fonda’s actions dishonorable during the Vietnam War and was she a traitor?

Her actions were dishonorable. It’s dishonorable to go to a country where people are fighting and sit in the anti-aircraft gun site and say that she wished she could shoot down [American] air pilots is obviously egregious. But I quickly add that I don’t condemn those who were antiwar protesters; I respect and cherish and will continue to fight for their right to disagree. It’s very different to demonstrate and protest the foreign or domestic policy of a government that you disagree with and going to a country and saying that you would like to provide assistance to the enemy. Was she a traitor? I think she was a misguided young woman who was caught up in the fervor of the anitwar movement and she was used by the North Vietnamese.

Have you forgiven her?

I won’t say that I’ve forgiven her but I don’t think about her.

Did you support the thousands of Vietnamese Americans in Westminster [Orange County, California] who protested the video store where the owner displayed the flag of North Vietnam?

I supported them in the respect that I saw no reason to provoke people who had spent years in [communist] reeducation camps and were brutally treated. I support the individual’s right to do whatever he wants to but it was totally unnecessary for him to provoke people who had suffered so much at the hands of the communists.

What one principle must the Republican Party stand for?

Freedom at home and abroad. Freedom to live out our lives as we best see fit, have our businesses grow and prosper with minimum government regulation and taxation. Freedom for people to have an opportunity to let them come into the world. Freedom to be assured that government will care for those who may not be able to care for themselves.

You serve in what was once Barry Goldwater’s Senate seat, a man who favored the right to an abortion and permitting gays in the military. Are Goldwater’s ideas consistent with today’s Republican Party?

The greatest thing about Barry Goldwater was that he stood up for individuals and the virtue of standing up for what one believes in, whether your party or your friends or your family agree. It was not that a lot of Americans came around to his conservative point of view -- though many did -- it was that they agreed to respect and appreciate his personal courage. Would Barry Goldwater be entirely comfortable with some in the Republican Party? Obviously not. He expressed that to me on many occasions right before he died. But is Barry Goldwater a respected leader in our party today? Absolutely, even if segments of our party disagreed with him.

Most segments of the party disagree with him—

It’s legitimate for you to point to the gay issue and the abortion issue but he was also for less taxes, lower regulation, strong defense—he was in tune with the party on most of the issues of the day.

Most Republicans do not focus on less taxes, lower regulation and a strong defense. Texas Gov. George W. Bush talks about compassion, Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde proposed regulating America’s video games based on content and the House recently voted to permit posting the Ten Commandments in government subsidized schools. Which of the two dominant wings of the GOP do you favor—the pragmatists or the religionists?

I don’t know because I’m sure it varies from issue to issue. The discussion within our party is healthy. That’s why I’m glad Pat Buchanan’s in this race; he represents to me a part of our party that I totally disagree with: isolationism, protectionism, trade barriers, etc. We need to have that debate within our party. That’s healthy. What gets unhealthy is when we get exclusionary.

You oppose permitting gays to serve in the military and you oppose the legal recognition of same sex marriage. Does that exclude gays?

I support the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which does not exclude gays from the military—

—The policy that requires that gays not disclose their sexuality?

Right. That policy has worked with rare exceptions. It’s a very difficult issue. Of course there are different problems associated with the policy but when you face the set of options that we faced—all evidence indicates that this policy has been successful. There may come a time when that policy may change and should be reevaluated but right now it’s working. As far as so-called same sex marriage is concerned, I don’t oppose it—I don’t approve of same sex marriages, which is a right I have as a citizen. I never said that people of the same sex can’t get married but I do not believe that same sex marriages should be placed on the same level as heterosexual marriages for a whole variety of reasons but if people want to have same sex marriages as people in San Francisco practice frequently, that’s fine—

Gays don’t get married with legal recognition—

That’s right. I do not believe that providing them the same legal status is something I can approve of nor do I believe a majority of Americans approve. A marriage should be between a man and a woman rearing a family. If same sex marriages should have the same level then what about three people? Four people? Twenty people? Is that all the same? I want to know what this leads us into. I’ve already heard advocacy of three people [getting married.] How people want to conduct their private lives is their own business but public policy is different. Let me mention one other thing—it’s a small thing—but one of my best friends is a congressman [from Arizona] named Jim Kolbe. He was outed by an organization and I was asked about him at that time and I said he was a dear friend, a great congressman and I would do everything to support his reelection. The mayor of Tempe, Arizona, was outed and I said exactly the same thing. I campaigned for both of them as hard as I could and I’m happy to say that both were reelected. I do not believe in discrimination against homosexuals. I’ve never asked but I would imagine that a number of friends of mine who are my colleagues and who I respect a great deal are of that lifestyle.

You don’t ask and they don’t tell?


Are you a pragmatist or one of the religious right?

I’m an idealist.

Does the term compassionate conservatism imply that one’s moral obligation is to serve others?

This whole issue is overblown because compassion is one of the fundamental aspects of public service.

But is one’s compassion a prerequisite for conservatives?

The founder of our party, Abraham Lincoln, was one of the most compassionate men and I think he would have been comfortable with that term. It is our duty to be compassionate to those who are less fortunate. I’d like two words on my tombstone: patriot and compassionate. I would not be alive had it not been for the compassion of other men.

Was it an act of compassion or the act of a good, well-trained soldier?

It’s compassion. But I believe it’s compassionate to cut people’s taxes, it’s compassionate to have a solvent Social Security system to comfort them in their old age, it’s compassionate to have strong national security. So compassion sort of drives everything that I believe public service is all about. Compassion is caring for others and trying to make sure that their lives are better.

Bush has embraced [so-called] volunteerism. Is it possible for an individual who works and gives not one cent to charity to be a good, moral person?

Sure, because devotion to one’s family is one of the fundamental principles of a good life but it’s the job of people like me, as Jack Kennedy and as Ronald Reagan did, to motivate people to be involved in causes greater than self-interest but that doesn’t mean they’re immoral.

Will you vote for a bill to permit the Ten Commandments to be posted in public schools?

If I have to vote on it, I’d probably vote yes, though I’d like to have the states and local school boards decide for themselves.

The Supreme Court has ruled that posting the Ten Commandments is a violation of the separation of church and state. Do you accept the principle that government subsidized educational institutions may promote religion?

They will probably rule that way again but I personally don’t find anything offensive about it

Do you think it is Constitutional?

It’s my view that it’s not unconstitutional but I think the Supreme Court has ruled that it is. I cannot for the life of me find anything offensive about the Ten Commandments.

The document is written and taught as having come from a supernatural being and there may be students who do not believe in God—

If there’s instruction, that’s one thing, but just posting it? One of the reasons that religious schools are so popular is that they do try to instill values and behavior. So posting the Ten Commandments to me would be a pretty good thing.

If it’s good to post the Ten Commandments, would it be good to require students to read it each morning in class?

The important thing is to do what I saw a teacher doing recently in Arizona. A teacher was teaching a virtue of the month and the virtue that month was to tell the truth. I’d love to see that taught in school so we can have some values and standards rather than be so agnostic.

Would you support a Constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion?

I would like to see us move toward a position where that would be possible but it’s not possible today because we would then have thousands of dangerous acts. We should work together to eliminate abortion. I have a fundamental moral belief that life begins at conception. Scientific evidence supports that view increasingly.

Would seeking a Constitutional amendment to ban abortion be a major goal of your presidency?

If we could reach a point where we could really eliminate abortion, then, yes. But, at the present moment, it would be very difficult. I would do everything in my power to lessen abortion.

You support a ban on burning the American flag. Is that a violation of individual rights?

No more than yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

You are a champion of campaign finance reform. Does man corrupt money or does money corrupt man?


You think corruption is inherently inevitable?

No. But there are levels of temptation to which people succumb.

Have you ever succumbed to those temptations?

I’ve succumbed to many temptations. But, no, not to [the temptation of money for influence.]

Then how can you say that money corrupts man if it didn’t corrupt you?

Because I see evidence. I see good people do bad things because of the influence of huge amounts of money.

Is money the root of all evil?

No. But money, like anything else, can make an influence that is corrupt.

You’ve said that government has no business going into business and you’ve also said that the greatest threat to technology is government intrusion yet you claim that, “as a first step, Congress should pass legislation to promote the use of [Internet] filtering technology.” What is the second step and how would you promote filtering technology?

The legislation I’ve proposed is that schools and libraries wired to the Internet should acquire software to filter according to community standards [decided by school boards and libraries]. I don’t view that as government intervention.

If a school board prohibits the theory of evolution, do you support that?

I don’t support it—I don’t agree with it—but I think it’s their right. A story that’s very popular with the liberal media is the school board that dumps [Mark Twain’s classic novel,] Huckleberry Finn. That gets corrected but the correction is never noted in the liberal media. Some school board somewhere will ban Darwin’s Theory of [Evolution]. But overall, school and library boards act in a mature and judgmental fashion which we can be proud of.

You propose government promotion of filtering technology as a first step. What’s the second step?

[Long pause.] To ask the media on the right and on the left to show some restraint in producing [films and television programming.]

Do you support freedom of speech on the Internet?

Of course. But I also believe that we should have the software so that children aren’t exposed to some of this—

The filtering software is available on the market. Are you suggesting that the government should—

Of course not. I want parents to know that software is available.

Would you create a mandatory national software educational program for parents?

I’d let the parents decide and the local schools and libraries decide according to their community standards.

Do you support Arizona Sen. and McCain supporter Jon Kyl’s proposal to effectively rescind the new Medicare rule prohibiting Medicare patients from paying out of pocket for services already covered by Medicare?

Yes. Medicare patients ought to be able to pay for their own services and additional services.

Are you in favor of expanding medical savings accounts (MSAs) to all Americans?


Is health care a right?

It certainly is for those who can’t provide for themselves.

You’ve said you want to protect Medicare and Social Security, though both programs are going bankrupt. Why do you seek to save failing entitlement programs?

I would have individual retirement accounts for Social Security and use the surplus to get it legally solvent.

When Republicans claim to seek to save Social Security and Medicare, don’t they really seek to fundamentally transform these entitlement programs?

Well, I think what we mean is keeping them solvent and we may have to change them to keep them solvent.

Does Microsoft have a monopoly on operating systems?

They dominate the market.

Does market dominance constitute a monopoly?

I don’t know because this technology keeps changing in such a rapid fashion, certain advances could almost put them out of business. I’ll leave that to the judges to decide.

Being on the Senate Commerce Committee, how do you define monopoly?

A monopoly, to me, is not only whether someone can enter the market but whether there’s an opportunity for competition.

You say “the American people expect us to do everything we can to reduce the avalanche of guns to children.” Is that government’s proper role or primarily the parents’ responsibility?

It’s the government’s role to prevent the presence of drug dealers on the streets and it is parents’ responsibility not to buy and use drugs. The total availability of guns to young people is certainly our obligation. In the world we live in, where many kids don’t know where their parents are—there’s a difference between saying a company can not sell a product and saying you cannot entice a child to use [a] product that harms the child. This debate will go on. But there is an obligation of government to try to prevent evils from being available to children—adults should be free to do just about whatever they want to do—but we have to protect children. Yes, it’s the responsibility of the parents, but, at the same time, parents should know what their kids are seeing, and [government] should provide them with the tools to know what their children are being exposed to. If they don’t care, then there’s nothing you can do about that.

Are man’s actions fundamentally predetermined or are they the result of his free will?

You’ve asked some very challenging questions. I believe that man makes decisions as a result of his or her free will but I also believe that there are beneficial influences which can help determine things.

Which is fundamental?


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