FOX News Channel "America's Election Headquarters"
MR. SMITH: And we're back from New Orleans now, where Senator John McCain today came in to tour the Lower 9th Ward. It was one of the hardest-hit areas of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He saw some of the progress that's been made and some of the lack thereof across that region. Largely the progress that has been made has come on the heels of private donations and volunteer groups. And the locals will tell you a lot of the federal money really hasn't been of a great assistance there.
Senator McCain is kind enough to join us here this afternoon. Senator, good to see you.
SEN. MCCAIN: Thanks, Shepard. Good to be with you.
MR. SMITH: You saw what's happened and what hasn't. Would you be willing to give the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, especially in the 9th Ward, a letter grade, A to F, and maybe tell us what you would do differently, should it happen again?
SEN. MCCAIN: The federal government I would give close to an F in some respects --
MR. SMITH: An F.
SEN. MCCAIN: -- although -- look, I rely on the governor and the people here in the 9th Ward for my information and knowledge. I've kept up with the issues. I read and study. But you've got to talk to the people on the ground. That's why I'm here.
They're worried about affordable housing. That's one of their key elements. They're worried about health care; that if someone comes back to the 9th Ward, that there's no health care facilities here for them.
They're striving hard. They're so proud of the volunteers who have come from all over America. I mean literally all -- there were high school kids from Massachusetts and from Maine there today that --
MR. SMITH: There were.
SEN. MCCAIN: You saw them.
But there's a lot that needs to be done. And it really has to do with if people want to come back to the 9th Ward, and it's up to them, in the view of the organizations there and the governor, then you've got to create a climate so that they can have a happy life there.
MR. SMITH: Sure.
SEN. MCCAIN: Do they have that now? I would say in the last year there's probably been more progress than there was at any time in the past, but they have a long, long way to go.
MR. SMITH: An opportunity to answer your critics. While you were there, Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic side, said that a tour of the Lower 9th Ward is not going to negate your voting against billions of dollars of Katrina recovery money here. How do you respond?
SEN. MCCAIN: You know, I don't usually spend my time doing that. But my record is very clear. Wasteful and unnecessary and pork-barrel spending and the money not going to the right places is one of the reasons for the disaster of Katrina. They dug a channel they never should have dug. We've allowed the wetlands, because of the way they dredge and get rid of the silt, to -- for the wetlands to be eroded dramatically. The barrier islands are diminished. And meanwhile the money went to pork-barrel projects that were unnecessary, wasteful and sometimes environmentally harmful. They -- even here in New Orleans, as well as nationally.
MR. SMITH: So --
SEN. MCCAIN: So I'm proud of my record.
MR. SMITH: You've seen a lot of African-American neighborhoods. You went to Selma, Alabama. You went to Memphis, to the Lorraine Motel, where you were heckled a little bit over your vote, which you apologized for.
Now you're in the Lower 9th Ward. Do you anticipate that you'll be able to do something the modern Republican Party really hasn't been able to, and that's get some African-American votes?
SEN. MCCAIN: Let me just say, I'm proud of my effort for the recognition of Martin Luther King in my state as a holiday. But look, I believe that the governor of Alabama, Bob Riley, got about 9 percent of the African-American vote when he first ran for governor. He got 24 percent in his reelection. Why was that? Because he did things like the Black Belt Action Coalition, a partnership of people from all over Alabama to help the people of the Black Belt finally to come out of the poorest place in America.
I'm going to work for their vote. I may not get a majority of their vote. I may not even get a significant proportion of it. But I want them to know, when I'm president, I'm going to be the president of all the people. That's the message.
MR. SMITH: Yesterday, you called on the Republican Party of the state of North Carolina to pull down an advertisement which you said degraded our civics.
SEN. MCCAIN: Yes.
MR. SMITH: What about that ad was offensive to you?
SEN. MCCAIN: I think it's -- anyone who watched it -- it was offensive in that it brought elements into this race which are --
MR. SMITH: Race?
SEN. MCCAIN: -- excuse me, into this contest -- of race -- that are totally unacceptable. We're the party of Abraham Lincoln and the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. That's just not the kind of advertising we want to do. We want this race decided on the issues.
MR. SMITH: Special interests and 527s may bring race into this contest, or attempt to. How will you stop them?
SEN. MCCAIN: I don't know if I can stop them, Shepard, but I can condemn them, and I call on those on the other side of the aisle to condemn them as well. And we have to, because America -- one thing I know, all my travels here, American's want a respectful campaign.
MR. SMITH: Sure.
SEN. MCCAIN: They do. They want it. Now people say, well, negative ads move numbers. They may. But do we have to go to the lowest common denominator? I don't think so.
MR. SMITH: Won't you need to -- it looks like you're going to be at a money disadvantage over the summer, a long summer before you get your matching funds come convention time. Will -- won't you need their help, the special interest groups, the 527s?
SEN. MCCAIN: No, look, we're going to -- we're doing better each time on the money. We've never had as much money as our opponents. So we'll have enough money to run an effective campaign. And again, the nature of information has changed where, frankly, paid media, at least in my -- (chuckles) -- maybe it's wishful thinking -- doesn't have as much an effect as it used to.
MR. SMITH: Will you call on those 527s, the special interest groups, here, in this interview, not to campaign on your behalf outside of your rules?
SEN. MCCAIN: I will campaign -- I will ask 527s not to campaign on anybody's behalf -- anybody's behalf. They should stay out. If they want to contribute and be part of this campaign, they can do it, on both sides. I'm not saying unilaterally disarm. I am saying everybody should stop it. And I call on the Federal --
MR. SMITH: So you're telling 527s not to campaign on your behalf, right here and right now.
SEN. MCCAIN: I'm telling them not to campaign on my behalf. I'm telling 527s not to campaign on behalf of my opponents, either. And I'm calling on the FEC, if we ever get a viable FEC, to enforce existing law. Existing law, the '74 law, says they are clearly engaged in activity which is in violation of the law.
But I'm calling on both sides, my friend, both sides.
MR. SMITH: Would you like a break -- a gas tax break -- over this summer? We'll talk to Senator McCain about his plan on that in two minutes.
MR. SMITH: And we're back in New Orleans on the campus of Xavier University with Senator John McCain, who's toured the city today and is talking issues with us.
Senator McCain, you called --
SEN. MCCAIN: Can I mention one thing?
MR. SMITH: Yes, sir?
SEN. MCCAIN: Xavier University has got a great president here, Dr. Norman Francis. Four and a half months after Katrina he reopened this institution. And that's the example of the kind of people we have.
MR. SMITH: Faster, really, than any institution in this region.
I want to ask you about gas. You have called for a holiday over the summer, between Memorial and Labor Day, from the federal gas tax. What would we sacrifice, were such a thing to happen?
SEN. MCCAIN: Very little. Maybe a "bridge to nowhere." Maybe another pork-barrel project. And it should be made up by general revenues. Look, all I'm asking for is a little holiday. We continue to see gas prices go up dramatically at the gas stations. It's 18 cents a gallon for regular -- for gasoline and 24 cents on diesel. And you know, when I mention it, the special interests in Washington -- you'd have think I'd have said, "I'm declaring the end of Western Civilization as we know it. Oh my God!"
Look. Americans -- the lowest-income Americans drive the furthest in America. They want to take a little vacation this summer. Let's give them a little break. Now, is it a -- is it huge impact? Maybe not. But it might be nice to give them a little break.
MR. SMITH: That money goes to roads and bridges. Are we in for another Minnesota bridge collapse? Our infrastructure's in bad shape as it is. And if not, than why not eliminate that tax completely?
SEN. MCCAIN: I think that that tax, the majority of it, should remain in the states where it's collected. Its original intention was to construct the national highway system. The national highway system is complete. I'd like to have the governors, legislatures, the mayors, the city councils, the county supervisors -- I'd like to see the majority of that -- of those taxes stay where they can use it best.
Some of it has to go, obviously, for national needs. But of course I would. But in the meantime, this money can -- for the summer -- can be made up from general revenues, in my view. Can't we just give average Americans who are really, really having a huge impact of the increase in the cost of food prices, gas prices -- Americans are hurting now. Give them a little relief.
MR. SMITH: On the Hill today, they're calling -- some are calling for a boycott of -- well, actually, this stops trading arms with OPEC nations because of this rise in fuel costs. What's your position?
SEN. MCCAIN: Well, first of all, the moral of the story is not to hammer these OPEC nations, who I have very little use for, because they're artificially keeping the cost of oil up, but --
MR. SMITH: You think they are.
It's not just speculation.
SEN. MCCAIN: Oh, I think a cartel -- any cartel in history, and they're a cartel, are responsible for increased gas prices.
But the moral of the story is not to beat up on them, because they're taking advantage of a situation. The situation is our dependency on foreign oil. Long ago, long ago we should have gone to nuclear power. We should go to wind, solar, tide. We should be developing -- and we should not be subsidizing ethanol, which is distorting the market, by the way, on the price of food. We should allow imported ethanol from Brazil, which we've got a tariff on.
Look, we've got to pursue technologies which will eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. That's the lesson here.
MR. SMITH: Senator, in the news today, North Korea and Syria.
SEN. MCCAIN: Yes.
MR. SMITH: The administration now says that there is evidence, and that they will present it in just about an hour on Capitol Hill to subcommittees, that the North Koreans helped the Syrians build a nuclear facility. Now seven months of secrecy and they're up in arms on Capitol Hill. What's our position on this issue?
SEN. MCCAIN: My position is, when I read about it in the media, I figured it out. (Chuckles.) I mean, it was reported in the media. But the important thing is --
MR. SMITH: What about the secrecy?
SEN. MCCAIN: Well, I don't know, because --
MR. SMITH: Should the Congress have been informed?
SEN. MCCAIN: Well, the action was taken by the Israeli government, as you know, not by the United States government, as I understand. Now, I mean, maybe more will be revealed. All I know is what I read in the media.
But the important thing here is, is not so much whether it was kept secret or not. The important thing here is that North Korea cannot be trusted. We've got to go back to Ronald Reagan's "trust but verify," my friend.
MR. SMITH: Well, the timing is of interest because for four years they've been working on this deal with North Korea to make them come to the table. Is it possible that they held off? And in fact, should the Congress have been notified that there is surveillance that indicates, according to the administration, that the North Koreans helped the Syrians build nuclear?
SEN. MCCAIN: I think the leaders of Congress and the intelligence committees should have been notified. If they weren't, then they should have been. I don't know if every member of Congress should be made aware of every -- but that's why we have intelligence committees and that's why we have leaders of Congress.
But second of all, I think most importantly is, any agreement we make with North Korea has to be both fully accountable and transparent, and I'm afraid that the path we're headed down with North Korea is not something we can verify. So, right now I would not agree to the present parameters as I understand it of an agreement with North Korea, not to mention their continued human rights abuses, which are (absolutely ?) atrocious.
MR. SMITH: Senator John McCain. I hear you get the weekend off. Enjoy.
SEN. MCCAIN: Thank you, my friend.
MR. SMITH: Good to see you. Thanks very much.
SEN. MCCAIN: Thanks. Just one day. (Laughs.)
MR. SMITH: Just one day.