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Discusses the Case of Elian Gonzalez and the Presidential Race (Interview)

Location: Meet the Press



MR. RUSSERT: Let's go live now to Phoenix, Arizona, the home state of Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Senator McCain, you just heard Mr. Alarcon. Your reaction, please?

MR. McCAIN: Well, I want to thank you and him, Tim. You took me on a trip down memory lane. It's been a long time since I've listened to that kind of Communist rhetoric, where wrong is right, black is white and up is down.

Look, the reason why people want to leave Cuba and they would leave Cuba is because of oppression. And we all know that if they let him go, there'd be a sign on the beach that says, "The last one out, turn out the lights." The statement that somehow nobody knows the motivation of this young boy's mother when she got on a boat—what does our Cuban friend think she was doing, going on a pleasure cruise? The fact is she was trying to gain him freedom, the most precious of all assets. And I got to tell you, we may have forgotten what it's like to live under communism and oppression and repression in a country like Cuba, where the conditions of—are absolute denial of human rights and freedom.

And finally, if, during the Cold War, a woman had been trying to go over the Berlin Wall and had been killed and dropped her child to freedom, no one would have contemplated sending that child back to Communist oppression. You know, this is really getting a little bizarre when we're sort of taking it on face value, the statements of people who live under Communist oppression. And they can't make a toilet that'll flush, but they sure now know how to orchestrate a spontaneous demonstration.

MR. RUSSERT: When I asked Mr. Alarcon why would people want to leave his country, what did you think of his answer?

MR. McCAIN: Well, it's the classic thank you again for reminding me of the golden days of yesteryear. Of course, we know why they want to leave his country. In all due respect to your question, the answer is obvious: Because they have no hope, they have no freedom. Why do you think the '56 Chevrolet is still the automobile of choice in Havana? Why do you think it is that they're having their young women sell themselves into prostitution, so that they can have hard currency? Why is it that they can't even start a restaurant in their own home? Look, Tim, this is one of the last places of oppression and repression. I'd be glad to offer Mr. Castro a road map that if he did certain things, we would do certain things on the other side. But to somehow think that you're going to send this young boy back to anything but a life of repression and oppression denies history. Ask anyone who lived behind the Iron Curtain up until not so long ago what it's like.

MR. RUSSERT: You and other Republican candidates had said Mr. Gonzalez, the boy's father, should come to the U.S. and...

MR. McCAIN: Sure.

MR. RUSSERT: ...then you might consider allowing him to return with the child.

MR. McCAIN: As long as we know that—we also need to know that there's nobody else in his family that's being held hostage, which is an old trick of the Communists, as well, and has been used by Castro in the past.

MR. RUSSERT: If Mr. Gonzalez, the boy's father, came here, should he be subpoenaed by Congress?

MR. McCAIN: I don't know if that's necessary. I haven't thought it through to that point. Look, what we need to do is go back and figure out why—back during the Cold War, there was a Russia Ukrainian family who wanted to go back to the Soviet Union. The child didn't want to go back with them. Somehow, he was able to sue that family, his parents—he was a young boy—and remained in the United States of America. That's what I'd have my attorney general do, in figuring out exactly how they did that then and do that now.

MR. RUSSERT: Will you support granting citizenship to Elian Gonzalez?

MR. McCAIN: Sure. We've done that to so many others who have been able to escape. Look, the only people that have been returned to Cuba have been criminals. I don't think that Elian falls into that category.

MR. RUSSERT: So if John McCain was President McCain, he would not return Elian Gonzalez?

MR. McCAIN: No, I would not. And look, I have some experience with Communist governments. And there are millions of people in the United States that have, too. Ask any of them who lived under it what it was like and whether we should condemn that young boy to it? And especially since his mother made the ultimate sacrifice in order that he might breathe free.

MR. RUSSERT: There are those who say: But, Senator, you believe in traditional family values. The boy's father is alive. He has and should have custody of the child. Why not return him to his remaining parent?

MR. McCAIN: I believe the best family value that anyone can have is freedom.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator John McCain, we're going to take a quick break and come back and talk about taxes, campaign finance reform, health care. A lot more with Senator John McCain, Republican candidate for president, right after this.


MR. RUSSERT: John McCain, you and George W. Bush have been mixing it up on tax cuts. Governor Bush says that your tax cut plan is too timid, and they cite an analysis from the Citizens for Tax Justice. Let me put it on the board for you and our viewers, and I'll read it: Those making $ 13,000 to $ 24,000 get zero under McCain's plan; $ 203 under Bush's plan; $ 24,000 to $ 40,000, $ 143 tax cut under your plan, $ 501 under Bush; and between $ 40,000 and $ 63,000, savings of $ 593 under your plan, over $ 1,000 under George Bush's tax cut plan. Is his tax cut too generous?

MR. McCAIN: No, but I would also take it up one category; for someone who makes $ 1 million, he gets $ 50,000. And if they make $ 1 million under my plan, they get $ 2,000. When you put in the child tax credit, family savings account, education savings accounts, medical savings accounts and other incentives and ways of cutting the taxes for lower- and middle-income Americans, then I think you will find different analyses that ours are much closer.

But, look, what this is really all about is what you do with a surplus. Are you going to take the surplus and put it all into tax cuts, or are you going to take some of that surplus and cut middle-income tax cuts and pay down the debt, make Social Security solvent and give some money into Medicare?

We all know that Social Security is a ticking time bomb. We all know that we have accrued a $ 5.6 trillion debt that we're laying on future generations of Americans. I think it's conservative to pay our debts in good times. I think it's conservative to fulfill our obligations to pay for people's Social Security, make sure their benefits are there. Everybody knows that they aren't there. Now, Governor Bush is running ads saying that he has a p—he's going to save Social Security. Senator Gregg, just yesterday or the day before, said that he has no plan to do so. I think we've got to have a plan to do so because that's our obligation.

MR. RUSSERT: Yesterday in the debate when you said the top 36 percent in revenues from Governor Bush go to the top 1 percent taxpayers, The Weekly Standard, the conservative magazine, said: "That kind of class warfare line could have been written by James Carville for John McCain." Are you engaging in class warfare against George W. Bush?

MR. McCAIN: I always thought that class warfare was to take away from the rich. I always believed that that was what class warfare was all about. As I said, there are tax breaks and money for the richest in America and the very rich, but I think that it's clear that there's a growing gap between rich and poor in America, the haves and the have-nots. And many studies have indicated that and I think that the people who need it most and need the relief most are working middle-income Americans and that's what I want to give to them. And at the same time, the greatest benefit that I can give them is to make sure that their Social Security benefits are there. And I also don't think it's fair for us to lay a $ 5.6 trillion debt down on future generations of Americans.

Now, we can attack all of them. We can give them tax cuts. We can make an investment in Social Security so that they can invest 20 percent of their savings into investments of their choice. We can put some money into Medicare, which we all know is in trouble, and start paying down this debt; the interest on which is, as we are paying, almost as much as we're spending on defense.

MR. RUSSERT: You seem to be saying that Governor Bush's tax cut plan is unfair and irresponsible.

MR. McCAIN: No, I don't say that. I'm saying that it's a matter of priorities. His priorities are to take the entire surplus and put it into tax cuts, and there will be further surpluses, I guess, that are announced. I'm saying we have obligations. And I'm saying it's conservative to make sure that we make the promises whole that we made in the form of Social Security, Medicare and not lay a huge debt down on future generations of Americans; meanwhile, giving a generous tax break to working-class Americans, middle-class Americans.

MR. RUSSERT: Let's see if we can sort out another little controversy you involved yourself in and that was over the—the Confederate flag flying over the capital of South Carolina. This is what you said last Sunday to my colleague, Bob Schieffer: "The Confederate flag is offensive in many, many ways. As we all know, it's a symbol of racism and slavery." The next day you said, "Some view it"—the Confederate flag—"as a symbol of slavery; others view it as a symbol of heritage. Personally, I see the Battle Flag as a symbol of heritage." And then the next day you said, "When asked last night why he said he saw the flag as a symbol of heritage, McCain said, 'If I said it, I misspoke.'" Let's see if we can settle it. Is the Confederate flag a symbol of slavery or of heritage?

MR. McCAIN: The third quote is not accurate. It is a symbol of slavery to some; it's a symbol of heritage to others. My forbearers fought under that flag and I'm sure that they considered their service honorable. I can see how people are—and the reason why it's so divisive, to state the obvious. I believe that it's a symbol of heritage. I also belive that it should be settled without interference from presidential candidates. I believe it's an issue that the people of South Carolina can settle just as we in Arizona settled the very divisive issue over the recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King as a holiday. When I was fighting for that, I resented it a great deal when people from Washington and pundits and politicians and others came to my state to tell us how we should work out a very difficult problem. We worked it out by recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King, which I'm very pleased about. But we didn't need help from anyone from the outside.

MR. RUSSERT: Dr. Lonnie Randolph, Jr., who's head of the NAACP in South Carolina, had this to say, and let me show you on our screen and read it to you. "'Heritage' is a code word to mean certain things that people don't want to come right out and say. Of course, the flag had to do with heritage, but it's a heritage of white supremacy and racism. Too many people are in denial about what the heritage really is."

MR. McCAIN: Well, I respect his views. I have a different definition of heritage and I believe the dictionary does, too.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe the Civil War was fought over slavery?

MR. McCAIN: Yes, I do. But I also believe that people felt that they served honorably, including my forbearers, who were not slave owners, who thought that what they were doing was the right thing to do, and for us to say that that's not true, I think is also not historically accurate.

MR. RUSSERT: But you do then see the flag as a symbol of slavery, as well as heritage?

MR. McCAIN: I know how people see it that way, of course. Of course, I hear that every day. I also know how people feel it is a symbol of heritage, as well, which I do.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the issue of campaign fund-raising. As you know, lots of criticism about a letter you wrote to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of a donor. Suggestions that much of the $ 20 million you've raised has come from employees of companies that come before your committee, companies like U.S. West, Viacom, Boeing. Donald Trump teed off on you the other day on the "Today" show. I want to roll that tape and give you a chance to respond:

MR. McCAIN: Thanks.

(Videotape, January 12, 2000 "Today"):

MR. DONALD TRUMP: It's wonderful when a guy goes and fights for campaign finance reform, but isn't it really disgraceful when somebody is involved with Keating and America West and so many others? Senator McCain cannot be talking about all of his wonderful reform and at the same time he's one of the biggest receivers of campaign funds and he helps all these people out? I'm mad at him for being a hypocrite. He should not be the one that's trying to sell this point because he's been a bad abuser. He's been a much worse abuser than many people in the Senate.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Hypocrite and abuser, Senator.

MR. McCAIN: Oh, there's a lot of things, charges that I'll respond to in this campaign. Donald Trump is not one of them.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe it's been difficult for you, as someone who has suggested—he's a reformer—to take so much money from employees of companies that appear before your committee, to write letters on behalf of donors to the FCC, to fly on corporate aircraft? Fairly or unfairly, does that put you in a position of being branded a hypocrite?

MR. McCAIN: Oh, I think that the reason why I'm so zealous in pursuit of campaign finance reform is because we're all tainted by the system where thousands and thousands—millions in soft money—I saw where the Republican Party's going to take $ 7 million from the tobacco companies, is washing around, which makes it—all of us under suspicion, including me, and I'm tainted by it. But I think—I could point out we've had over 100,000 contributors to my campaign, including $ 1.3 million over the Internet. That's Our average contribution is much smaller than Governor Bush's. I'm proud to have received contributions from all over America. The Commerce Committee oversights everything that moves and doesn't move. It has the largest oversight. Of course, there are people who've seen my activities, but consumer advocates will tell you that I have stood up against the special interests and for the public interest and that's what I'm going to continue to do, and I understand these charges are going to be made. This is a very intense business we're in, and I think it's going to get even more intense in the next couple weeks.

MR. RUSSERT: As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, you've had a week to reflect on the potential merger of America Online and Time Warner. What's your take?

MR. McCAIN: I'm very concerned about the continued mergers. I think it needs careful scrutiny. I said these things would happen when we passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act where all the special interests gave huge amounts of money and the average citizen was shut out. And, by the way, those average citizens have seen increases in all of their telecommunications costs since that bill was passed. I think it's very concerning. I think it's got to be carefully scrutinized, and I think that we're also—perhaps see a triggering of other mergers within this industry and, obviously, the—you reach a point at some time where it's not good for the consumer and it stifles competition.

MR. RUSSERT: Will your committee conduct hearings?

MR. McCAIN: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Will you try to block this?

MR. McCAIN: Oh, I think we need to examine it. I don't think it's appropriate to determine a course of action until you get all the facts, but I'm very concerned.

MR. RUSSERT: In New York state, your petitions to be placed on the ballot for the New York Republican primary have been ruled inadequate and you've been knocked off the ballot in numerous congressional districts. Critics—you called that policy Stalinist. Many Republicans in New York countered: John McCain, it's the same thing you did in 1988 and 1992 to your opponents in Arizona.

MR. McCAIN: We all know that the job in Arizona of our laws is to get credible candidates on the ballot. What they've been doing in New York for a long time is get credible candidates off the ballot. The fact is that everybody knows that I am a credible candidate. In fact, all six of us are. I've raised a lot of money that you just referred to. We're up in the polls. And everybody knows that I should be on the ballot in the state of New York, and it's disgraceful when they keep people off the ballot because of the orders of some political machine. All these people are supporters of Governor Bush. I hope that Governor Bush, in the interest of pure fairness, would tell Governor Pataki and Mr. Powers and the apparatchiks of the Republican Party of New York to let me on the ballot. It is clear that I'm a qualified candidate and the people of New York should not be deprived of their choice.

MR. RUSSERT: But you did knock off your opponent in 1988 for the Senate.

MR. McCAIN: They were not credible candidates and everybody knew that, that they were not credible candidates. And according to the laws of Arizona, it puts credible candidates on the ballot. There's never been any allegation that a credible candidate in Arizona has been taken off the ballot. It's the history of the state of New York.

MR. RUSSERT: Must you win the New Hampshire primary in order to stay viable?

MR. McCAIN: I think we have to do very well. These things are in the expectations game. That's going to depend on what happens in Iowa, but clearly, we have to do very well. I don't know what the definition of a win is, but we certainly have to do very well there. And I'm very happy. Our message of reform is working. We're getting great turnouts at the town hall meetings. I'm telling them I'm going to give them their government back. And they're responding to it and we're getting lots of good questions. And it's a lot of fun. It's getting a little chilly, but it's a lot of fun.

MR. RUSSERT: But you need the equivalent of a straight flush, Senator, don't you? Win New Hampshire, win South Carolina, win Arizona, win Michigan, and if you have—absent that four-state strategy, your campaign is over?

MR. McCAIN: Tim, you've been listening to the Bush campaign, my friend. I think this is very competitive. We did do well in New Hampshire, do well in South Carolina, do well in some of the other states—California, we're very strong here. We had 50,000 people sign up to our campaign over the Internet, volunteer over the Internet. We can go around the party organizations, and this insurgent campaign is doing very, very well. Let's see what happens after New Hampshire and South Carolina because I think the dynamics of this situation—look, five months ago, on this program, you and the other political pundits had said: "Look, McCain's at 3 percent. No chance." Now, we got a great shot. But, look, I'm the underdog. We're way behind. We're being outspent 5:1. We're way, way behind and we've got a long way to go, but I'm very happy at the progress we've made.

MR. RUSSERT: You didn't hear that on this program, Senator.

MR. McCAIN: Oh, I...

MR. RUSSERT: In any event. We'll be watching. We'll see you up in New Hampshire.

MR. McCAIN: I thank you, Tim, for having me.

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