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Will John McCain Be the Next President of the United States (Interview)

Location: CNN Crossfire

BYLINE: Bill Press, Mary Matalin


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have memories of a place so far removed from the comforts of this blessed country that I've learned to forget some of the anguish it once caused me.


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: He was a prisoner of war.


MCCAIN: Russ Feingold and I are going to attempt once again to force the United States Senate to abolish soft money.


MATALIN: He's a maverick United States senator.


MCCAIN: This is your country, my friends, and I'm running for president to give it back to you.


MATALIN: Will he be the next president of the United States?

ANNOUNCER: From Washington: CROSSFIRE. On the left: Bill Press. On the right: Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE: Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, author of the new book, "Faith of my Fathers."

MATALIN: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

In an age of wannabes, John McCain is the real deal, a real American hero. As a Vietnam POW for over five-and-a-half years, his in-your-face patriotism inspired his comrades and enraged his captors. His inspiration comes from his father and grandfather, both four-star Navy admirals chronicled in his new widely acclaimed book, "Faith of my Fathers." He's a real maverick, a third-term U.S. Senator. His in-your-face commitment to his causes likewise inspires and enrages both parties.

And in his campaign for president of the United States, no gimmicks, no attacks, just straight talk and novel positions. As John McCain took to the airwaves yesterday to promote what critics are calling a gripping book, another 2000 Republican contender had some gripping news of his own. Pat Buchanan is all but set to bolt the GOP for the Reform Party. So as campaign 2000 accelerates, will the thousands mobbing McCain's book signings translate into mobs at the polls? Will his resistance to Republican litmus tests repel or attract 2000 voters? And will those litmus test Republicans follow Buchanan to a third party? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Senator McCain, good evening. Thank you for joining us.

MCCAIN: Thank you, Bill.

PRESS: Let's start—yesterday, I saw you on "Meet the Press," and just before you were there I saw your colleague Pat Buchanan, who made it almost official, Senator—for those who didn't have a chance to watch the show, let's listen quickly to something Pat had to say.

PAT BUCHANAN ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're taking a very hard look at the Reform Party nomination. It looks very attractive. It is a way to get into the great debate on the future of America. So we're looking at it very, very hard.

We'll make a final decision in October.


PRESS: Now, Senator, we certainly want to talk about you, but let me ask you first about Pat. Is Pat Buchanan doing the right thing?

MCCAIN: I don't think so. I believe that Pat has been a stalwart of our party for many, many years, in fact, longer than almost any of us. He goes all the way back to the Nixon White House. He is an articulate spokesperson for part of our party that— obviously, he and I are in strong disagreement on trade, protectionism, the role of the United States in the world, but I think he is an important part of our party. I wouldn't like to see him leave. I was looking forward to the debate, because as you know, this kind of thing comes up periodically in the Republican Party and I think it has to be resolved and it can do so—be done with honest and open debate.

PRESS: Pat Buchanan also said yesterday, Senator, at this point, he could not see his way to endorsing George W. Bush as the nominee. I know you want to stop George W. Bush. If you don't, could you support George W. Bush as a nominee of your party?

MCCAIN: I could support any of our nominees that were selected through the fair and open process that we have of selecting our nominee. And I regret that again about Pat, because he supported the nominee on several other occasions when he ran, and I'm not sure our party is that much different from what it was in 1996, to be honest with you. PRESS: It may not be a fair question this early in the game. You want to be number one. If George W. is number one, how about John McCain for number two on the ticket? You'd take it?

MCCAIN: Bill, I believe the vice president has two duties: one is to inquire daily as to the health of the president, the other is to attend the funeral of Third World dictators. I really would not want to do that. I enjoy the Senate, and love the Senate and living in Arizona. I would not in any way be interested.

MATALIN: Senator McCain, just now and yesterday and throughout the campaign, you have with steadfastness refused to attack any of your opponents, just now—as you did just now with Buchanan. Proving that nice guys don't finish last, you're in second place in New Hampshire. So if you end up being the contender—the main contender to George W. Bush, how are you without attacking him going to distinguish yourself from his candidacy?

MCCAIN: Are you trying to say, Mary, that nice guys finish second? I think that there's the time and opportunity late this fall and early next year where we are going to have debates. You know, the front-runner never wants to debate. The media forces the front-runner into a debate and we have them, and I think that'll be an ample opportunity. I'm very pleased with the progress that I've made.

I'm very pleased with everything about our campaign. And I intend to steadfastly not criticize others. I saw what happened in '96. I saw what happened in '92. You did, Mary, more closely than I did, and I think it's unfortunate, and I'm not going to be a part of it. And I have some confidence that if negative campaigning starts that the, quote, wiser men and women in the Republican Party will condemn such a thing.

MATALIN: Or try to, let's hope so.


MATALIN: Well how do you distinguish your candidacy? Pick an issue? Pick something other than you're the only one that's not going to go on the attack? What makes you a better candidate than George W. Bush?

MCCAIN: Well I think we'll have a chance to make those comparisons. I'm not clear on a lot of his positions. I'm sure that they will become clear. Campaign-finance reform, my view, is a gateway to all other reforms. I don't see how you reform education, or patients' bill of rights, or the military, or the tax code as long as you have the special interests ruling the agenda here and the public interests being ignored, so I think that's a very vital part of this campaign.

Obviously, my credentials, I think, warrant me consideration from the voters. But it really does boil down, as you two know as well as I do, on how you articulate a vision for the future of the country. I intend to be able to do that. Whether it will be good enough, you know, we'll have to find out. PRESS: Let me pick up on that issue, Senator. You are the chief proponent, along with Russ Feingold in the Senate, of campaign reform. And yet, the chief opponents of campaign reform are the leaders of your own party.

Recently, Mitch McConnell, head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, sent a letter to CEOs around the country asking them to resign from the Committee for Economic Development, because that organization supports your legislation. He followed that up, Senator, with a letter asking Republicans to send $25 or more to protect the United States from missile attack from North Korea. What do you think of those kind of tactics, Senator?

MCCAIN: I think the second one is probably a little more egregious, but pretty much the tactics that both parties use in order to get people to send money to our parties. But the first one I find a little curious, because Senator McConnell has advocated that money is free speech. And these people have decided not to use their money for those purposes. I think they're entitled to their free speech just as much as those who give the six figure contributions to our party. I guess it's going to be seven figure from what we hear. I understand there's going to be a new category of giver to our party of million dollar givers.

PRESS: But you think your party is out of touch with the American people on this issue, and why?

MCCAIN: I think that both parties have become addicted to huge amounts of soft money. Why not raise it that way than in the small amounts that we used to have to? In fact, all during my early years this—in elective politics, I think that we've become addicted to it. It keeps incumbents in office. We're asking incumbents to change a system that keeps incumbents in office.

So it's tough, but I have done a lot of studying now in the history of corruption in America, and we've gone through cycles.

We're now at the cycle where the scandals are going to become so large and the anger of the American people so intense that they're going to demand reform. And I think we're—if we don't get it in October, I'm sure we'll get it sooner rather than later.

Bill, there's too much money washing around. There will be more scandals.

PRESS: But, Senator, some Republicans are asking the question, now here's John McCain, we may like him but he's broken with our party on campaign reform. He's broken with our party on tobacco legislation. How could you lead the Republican Party as president if you've broken with the party so much as a senator?

MCCAIN: Well I hope they would remember Teddy Roosevelt, who broke with his party on a number of occasions, who is a personal role model of mine. But more importantly, I've been a good party member. I agree on most issues, fundamentals of lower taxes, less regulation, smaller government, coherent foreign policy, strong national defense. But I strongly believe in reform.

And I cannot allow any party loyalty or any other reason to stand in the way of what I see is corrupting the legislative process here in Washington, and that's the influence of big money; just as Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 was able to get outlawed, corporate contributions to American political campaigns, because the robber barons were buying politicians. In 1947, as you know, they outlawed union contributions. Now the whole system is a joke.

MATALIN: Senator McCain, your interest in reform, as you just said, goes to the cynicism about the entire system, which drives heroes like you nuts, but don't you think—or articulate how this administration and its multitude of scandals has contributed to that cynicism?

MCCAIN: Oh, I think it's—you know, the president of the United States treated the Lincoln Bedroom like Motel 6, and he was the bellhop. We've seen egregious things happen, but, you know, Pat Cadell the other day, a man that Bill knows well, said that if we don't clean up the system, they're not going to be renting out the Lincoln Bedroom they're going to be renting out wings of the White House. And this system has become worse and worse and worse. It doesn't get any better, obviously, as is true with any evil. So I think that the—one of the greatest failings is that Janet Reno did not appoint an independent counsel in light of all the allegations and in contradiction of the recommendations the director of the FBI and Mr. Labella, who she had appointed as head of a task force to investigate these allegations.

MATALIN: Do you think the—switching gears here, but some perceived it as a cynical act—the president's clemency for the Puerto Rican terrorists was a legitimate use for the pardon power of the president?

MCCAIN: I think it's a legitimate use in that it's constitutional. I don't—I strongly disagree with it. I think you have—were down there at the studio when I was Sunday morning and watched one of the freed individuals who clearly showed no remorse, no—even indication that he was going to act any differently once he was free. And so I strongly disagreed with that, and I'm not sure what the political ramifications are and why they did it and what impact it had on Mrs. Clinton, but I don't think it did the president or Mrs. Clinton any good.

PRESS: Senator, we're going to have to take a break.

When we come back, Senator McCain has just released his book, "Faith of My Fathers," about his experiences as a Navy flier. What experiences, what lessons did he learn as a POW that he wants to take all the way to the Oval Office? We'll ask him when come back.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

What do Dan Quayle, Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan and John McCain have in common? Well, they're all running for president and they're all out selling their new books. John McCain's, "Faith of My Fathers," is the story of his life right up to getting released from a Vietnam prison camp.

Tonight, we take it from there, with senator, author and GOP presidential candidate John McCain—Mary.

MATALIN: Well, Senator, first and foremost, congratulations on the reviews of this book, called gripping, glorious, you won't be able to put it down. It's not just a presidential book. But it has many lessons for the presidential campaign. It concludes, as movingly as it reads throughout, a conversation on near the end of your grandfather's life that took place with his son, your father.

"My father said to me, son, there's no greater thing than to die for the principles, for the country and the principles that you believe in."

This is a big part of your campaign, this principle. How do you, as candidate McCain translate the depth of patriotism that your whole family lived by to the electorate?

MCCAIN: A couple of months—three months ago, Russ Feingold and I received the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award at the Kennedy Library in Boston. And I seized the opportunity to observe Jack Kennedy's speeches.

I saw a commonality between Ronald Reagan, Jack Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and other great leaders. They had the ability to inspire other young Americans to commit themselves to causes great than their self-interests. I believe I can do that. I believe that's the important thing and a very important task for the next president of the United States, given the cynicism and pessimism that pervades a lot of young people in America, which flies in the face of this excellent economic situation we're in.

Could I make one comment, though, please, Mary—and I'm sorry, but when I wrote this book, a woman named Flip Brophy (ph), who's a well-known agent, came to me with the idea that we should write a book about three generations of imperfect men who have committed themselves to their country's cause. I had rejected ideas many times to write about my own time in prison and own experiences because I don't consider myself a hero. I was privileged to serve in the company of heroes. But this tie was intended not to further my presidential ambitions—because I hadn't considered at that time seriously running for president—but it was to try to maybe inspire some you people to do some patriotic things.

MATALIN: You know, Bill and I were talking before the show having both spoken to you a number of times, interviewed you a number of times. We know you don't like talking about that time. We know how you consider yourself not a hero during the torture and the solitary confinement. But it's—the lessons you learn there and are able to translate into a living experience and possibly an inspiration for your presidential race are important things that need to be heard. How are you going to talk about that on the campaign trail, as difficult as it has been for you to do it in the past?

MCCAIN: Well, on the campaign trail I talk about the importance of service to country, the—our duty to try to help others. I try to convince young Americans who believe there are no great causes anymore that there are great causes in the world where there's hungry children and seniors without a home and tragedies such as going on in East Timor as we speak.

But if I talk about my experience in prison, Mary, the reality is that I am somehow using that experience for political gain, I will not do it. I refuse to do it, especially in light of the fact my heroes are people who expect more of me than that.

PRESS: Senator McCain, let me just add a word. We have to read a lot of books on this show. Most of them are pure pap.

This is the great exception. It's a great read and a very moving story.

But I have to ask you, the story stops cold when you're released from the POW camp, no talk about John McCain running for Congress, running for Senate. No talk, Senator, about the Keating Five, no talk about the personal problems that continued, broke up your first marriage, no talk about your battles with your party for campaign reform and tobacco legislation. I mean, is this really the John McCain—do we really know the John McCain just reading this book? And why did you stop midway through?

MCCAIN: I stopped on the day I left prison because I thought that that was the connection between three generations, and frankly generations before. I thought that if I put in other issues and other times, both personal and political, then it just became another political book.

And again, I was not trying to articulate a message of please elect me to be president of the United States. The message was, I thought, more complete on the day I left prison than it would have been if all of a sudden I started throwing in why I think tobacco legislation's future is important for the future of the country.

PRESS: Now, Senator, people watching this show may not believe this, but in your book you do talk about when you were a little kid you threw these fierce temper tantrums, threw yourself on the floor, held your breath to scare the bejeezus out of your parents, and then they would drop you in a bathtub filled with cold water, which is what I think some doctor or shrink told them to do.

Now, Senator, I presume you no longer have that particular approach to problem solving, but I mean, let's face it, let's be honest. I mean, the reputation I hear on Capitol Hill, that you've got a horrible temper and you're a real S.O.B. to work with.

Is your temper something that's going to get in the way of your ability to solve problems?

MCCAIN: Bill, I'm sure that some of my colleagues would wish that there was a tub of cold water somewhere around right off the Senate floor.

Look, I feel passionately about issues. I feel strongly. I get angry when my colleagues put pork-barrel projects on appropriations bills when we have thousands of young men and women in the military on food stamps. I get angry when they put in special benefits for special interests and it overrides the public interest. But I don't lose my temper anymore.

I've been chairman of the Commerce Committee for three years: 11 Republicans, nine Democrats. I've never raised my voice in a hearing or in a mark-up.

I know how to control my passion, but I do not deny the fact that I have a lot of passion.

MATALIN: Back to the book, Senator, and its connection to the campaign, at least thematically, it is the story about fathers and sons. I know your mother, she's a smoking pistol too.

Your family raised you in such a way that you're a great citizen. Now we're in the era of the return of big government. You just mentioned some of the issues that are—what are you going to do in the campaign distinguishing the role of the family versus the role of government?

MCCAIN: Well, I think we have to emphasize the themes that government, we've proven, has not all the answers. There is a role for government, but there's also a great role for private individuals and organizations and committed volunteers.

I think we ought to understand, for example, in education, the best answers come from the local and state level rather than from Washington, D.C.

I think that it's a tradition of our Republican Party and conservatism not to turn over our problems to the federal government to solve our problems.

Could I mention one brief story about my mom?

MCCAIN: There was another book called "The Nightingale Song" by Bob Timberg, and it was about the five of us. And in part of it, it described how I had been walking outside and yelled obscenities at the guards while I was in prison for my own benefit but also for those around me.

Part of the book was reprinted in "The Washingtonian" magazine. They said—and she read it and called me up and said, "Johnny." I said, "Yes."

She said, "I just read the excerpt in the magazine." And I said, "Well, what did you think?"

She said, "I'm coming over there to wash your mouth out with soap."


MATALIN: Senator John McCain, we'll see you on the campaign trail. Congratulations. Fabulous book. MCCAIN: Thanks a lot.

MATALIN: Thank you so much for joining us.

PRESS: Thanks, Senator.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

MATALIN: When we come back, hero, Bill Press and I will give our final comments.
Stay with us on CROSSFIRE.


MATALIN: Isn't it wonderful to agree on something to start this week?

PRESS: What?

MATALIN: Are you ever not inspired by John McCain? That he's setting new rules for politics? He doesn't attack anybody.

You're just for him or you're against him—simple as that. He's an American hero.

PRESS: I agree with that. I have one thing to say: Please, please don't make John McCain the nominee of the Republican Party. That's all I ask.

He's refreshing. He's gutsy. He's independent. He makes George W. Bush look like yesterday's newspaper. And you—you're not smart enough to nominate him.

MATALIN: What did we just learn from John McCain? You don't have to attack somebody to make yourself...

PRESS: I'm sorry. I make a living attacking George W. Bush. And you're ducking the question. If he's so good, which you and
I agree, why don't you nominate him?

The party doesn't have the guts for a gutsy man as a nominee. That's what it is.

MATALIN: If John McCain is not the nominee, he'll be the next secretary of state.

PRESS: You're avoiding your best shot. From the left—thank you. I'm Bill Press. Good-night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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