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Interview With John McCain

Aired May 25, 2002 - 17:30   ET


AL HUNT, CO-HOST: I'm Al Hunt. Robert Novak and I are on Capitol Hill to interview one of the most independent and influential members of Congress.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: He is Senator John McCain of Arizona.


NOVAK (voice-over): The Bush administration and Republican leaders resisted calls by Democratic leaders for an independent commission to investigate the terrorist attacks of September 11.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: We need a commission to try to make recommendations and at least get the facts out there on what exactly happened and how it can better be coordinated.

REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX), MAJORITY WHIP: A public commission investigating American intelligence in a time of war is ill conceived and, frankly, irresponsible.

NOVAK: Senator McCain, writing in The Washington Post this week, called for an independent inquiry. He concluded, quote, "It is not responsible or right to shrink from offering thoughtful criticism when and to whom it is due and when the consequences of incompletely understanding failures of governance are potentially catastrophic. On the contrary, such timidity is indefensibly irresponsible in times of war, so irresponsible that it verges on the unpatriotic," end quote.

John McCain, who spent five years in a Vietnamese prison camp as a captured U.S. naval aviator, entered politics in 1982 with his election as a Republican congressman from Arizona. Four years later, he was elected to the Senate.

In 2000, he campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination, defeating George W. Bush in New Hampshire, Michigan and several other states before losing to the party favorite. He scored his greatest legislative triumph this year when Congress passed and President Bush signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.


NOVAK: Senator McCain, Vice President Cheney was on the "LARRY KING LIVE" show this week and he said something about the members of the Democratic Party who had asked, "What did the president know and when did he know it?" and let's listen to what the vice president said.


RICHARD B. CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When members of Congress suggest that the president of the United States had foreknowledge of the attack on September 11, I think that's outrageous. That's beyond the pale. Somebody needs to say, "That ain't criticism, that's a gross, outrageous political attack, and it's totally uncalled for, unjustified."


NOVAK: Senator, do you believe that the vice president is correct in that or do you believe that he is one of the irresponsible non-critics that you were talking about?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: No, I believe that the vice president is correct, because no American can possibly believe that if the president of the United States had information that there was going to be an attack imminent on the United States that President Bush wouldn't have acted. President Bush is a patriot.

I think the question is, if the president had received all the information that was available, would he have made a different decision? The FBI report from Phoenix, this report from Minnesota, the CIA information about the al Qaeda threat, et cetera. That's the question.

But I agree with the vice president, it is irresponsible to in any way insinuate the president of the United States would not have acted if he had sufficient amount of information.

NOVAK: But on the question of an independent commission that you have cosponsored, George Tenet, the director of the CIA, says his hands are full. He's got the Intelligence Committee investigation. Do you not credit that as a real problem, that he's got to take people off the war and put them on the investigation?

MCCAIN: Well, I would hope not, because I hope that this investigation would be the wisest people we know, who would look not just at intelligence, in fact, probably less at that because there is an intelligence investigation going on, but all the factors that led up to the events that transpired on 9/11.

In 1989, the Soviet Union -- then-Soviet Union, was defeated and left Afghanistan. We turned our backs on Afghanistan. Then you had warlords. Then you had the Taliban and al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. That has nothing to do with intelligence. It has everything to do with national policy. So over a span of several administrations we need to know what happened. And I don't see, honestly, Bob, how you really know how to shape national policy for the future unless you know what happened in the past. NOVAK: Senator, the Pearl Harbor investigation and the Kennedy assassination investigation, the Warren commission, are often mentioned as predicates for this investigation.

But isn't it true, they didn't do a very good job? A lot of people thought Pearl Harbor was a whitewash, making scapegoats out of the general and the admiral there and, of course, the Warren commission had a lot of trouble. Are those really good models for you?

MCCAIN: Well, I think there were several others after Pearl Harbor, but I do believe the Pearl Harbor commission was important. They may have made mistakes.

The Warren commission was controversial, but if we had never had a commission after the assassination of John F. Kennedy? I think it would have been a hundred times more controversial if somebody said, "Oh, we're not going to investigate this assassination." There's always the Grassy Knoll theories, but they would have been in abundance if we had never had a commission to investigate.

NOVAK: Senator, in opposing the national commission, Vice President Cheney also invoked national security. Let's listen for a minute to what he had to say.


CHENEY: Our concern is that, if we now lay another investigation on top of that we're just multiplying potential sources of leaks and disclosures of information that we can't disclose.

If there are leaks from that document, if it's disclosed to the people that it shouldn't be disclosed to, we will lose the capacity to defend ourselves against future attacks.


NOVAK: Is there a danger here?

MCCAIN: I hope not. I would hope that the caliber of people who would be assigned -- a Henry Kissinger, a Sam Nunn, a Lee Hamilton, a Zbig Brzezinski. I mean, those individuals -- Jean Kirkpatrick -- I mean a number of them -- that level of people. William Safire, in a column, had a rundown of people that would be qualified. I don't think those kinds of people would leak and cause damage to national security. We need the wisest people we can find. I don't think they would do that.

NOVAK: The vice president, also in talking about the famous Phoenix document, the FBI agent in Phoenix who warned about al Qaeda terrorists at American air training facilities, said that to release that to the public, to release that document would destroy the capacity to deal with future threats. Do you think the public is not entitled to see that document?

MCCAIN: I don't know, because I don't what it contains. But I think the vice president has legitimate concern about sources of information. And I would hope that any document that would not reveal the sources -- I think you know right after 9/11 there was a terrible breach of security when a United States senator said that we had intercepted phone calls, and immediately those stopped. So I understand that concern.

But I also think the administration has gone some distance by bringing that agent to the Hill to brief members of the Judiciary Committee. And so, I think we are making some progress in that direction.

NOVAK: From what you know, do you think the CIA performed well pre-9/11?

MCCAIN: You know, I do not know, because I still don't know what the CIA did or didn't do. I am concerned, and I think most people are concerned, about the lack of coordination between agencies, the failure to work together to share information.

They're doing that now. In fact, we know the CIA director and the FBI director are briefing the president every morning.

So there was obviously breakdowns, particularly in coordination and sharing of information. Whether that's been fixed or no, I'm not sure because I've never heard all of what they're doing.

NOVAK: Senator McCain, over the last week we have had a lot of alerts of warnings of monuments in New York, talk about an attack on the country. Do you believe, as some people have reported, that this was an attempt by the administration to react to the claims that they didn't react sufficiently to earlier alerts?

MCCAIN: I've no reason to believe that, because I don't know what information they have. And if I begin mistrusting our president and the people we place in charge, then I think it's a serious mistake.

But, Bob, I do question this whole scenario of there could be apartment building blown up, there could be the Brooklyn Bridge, there could be this, there could be that. In other words, is there discrimination in these warnings that isn't just frightening Americans, and yet at the same time achieving the goal of keeping us on alert.

How would I do it any different? I don't know. But I worry that over time with so many warnings with such frequency, Americans begin not to take them seriously. You see my point?

HUNT: Senator, if it's not a diversion, they've come up with a complicated color code system. Red is the most serious, green is the least. We're on a yellow alert now, which is right in the middle, same as we've been at for the last couple of weeks. And yet, suddenly we find in the midst of this controversy over what went on pre-9/11, we find Dick Cheney and the FBI director and the attorney general saying all kinds of terrible things could happen. Why are we just in a yellow alert if that's the case? MCCAIN: You know, I don't know.

HUNT: But isn't that suspicious?

MCCAIN: It's hard for me to say that I'm suspicious of people (UNINTELLIGIBLE) who I know are good and honorable people and dedicated public servants.

But I would like to just reemphasize what I just said to Bob. I think we've got to look at all these warnings very carefully and what the affect is on the American people.

I hate to personalize stories. The worst thing politicians do, I think, is personalize stories. My 17-year-old daughter called me last night and said, "Dad, I was thinking about going to New York. Should I go to New York? I shouldn't, should I?" Well, you know, it's hard for me to tell her whether she should go or not.

And so, I just hope we're examining not only the importance of providing American people this information, but what the long-term impact is on them. And I say that with the full and certain knowledge that I don't know a better answer.

HUNT: Senator McCain, we're going to take a break now.

But when we're back we will talk to John McCain about the Republican Party.


NOVAK: Senator John McCain, I have been collecting a number of issues on which you have digressed or diverted from the Republican Party and the Bush administration since the 2000 election, and we'll put them up on the screen.

Campaign finance reform, HMO regulation, gun regulation, fuel efficiency standards, national service, marriage penalty, capital gains tax reduction, medical savings accounts. You didn't used to split from the other Republicans that much. Have you changed?

MCCAIN: Well, I think the campaign I engaged in was a learning experience and it brought to me the importance of an issue such as a patients' bill of rights when people stand up in a town hall meeting and tell you how they've been deprived of the ability to see another doctor. I would say that I am in agreement with the president on national service; I'm eager to work for him and with him on that issue.

I've been working as hard as I can for free trade, this free trade agreement, strong national defense, missile defense -- there are a number of issues that I think you would find that I am still a pretty much of a Roosevelt Republican.

NOVAK: If I -- Teddy Roosevelt. But would you say -- and you say it was a learning experience. Would you say that you today -- you often describe yourself as a proud conservative, but would you say that you're more liberal than you were as, say, when you first entered the Senate?

MCCAIN: I wouldn't. I hate to use those kinds of terms. What I hope I am is more knowledgeable and better informed than I was when I first came to the House of Representatives in 1983. But I also believe that you could argue that, yes, I have changed over the years in some of my positions. I have -- I will admit that.

HUNT: Your hero in politics is Teddy Roosevelt, would TR be comfortable in today's Republican Party?

MCCAIN: In some respects, I don't believe so. And I'll tell you the one that -- probably the most glaring would be -- well actually, two -- one is that he was the first one to take on the Wall Streeters and the robber barons and we outlawed corporate contributions in 1907, so he was really the first campaign finance reformer.

And second of all, the environment. Theodore Roosevelt was a committed environmentalist. We would have the national parks today, at least the way they are, if it hadn't been for Theodore Roosevelt.

So I think that, yes, I think that there are some differences between the Theodore Roosevelt that I've read at least 20 books about and studied, and the Republican Party. There are similarities: the greatness of America, the necessity to use our military strength for democracy and freedom. So, this Republican Party is not completely divorced, but there are differences.

HUNT: You've frequently said you wouldn't be comfortable as a Democrat, and we accept that, but Teddy Roosevelt, of course, did not turn into a Democrat, he switched to a third party -- an independent. Could that be in John McCain's future?

MCCAIN: I don't envision that scenario or any scenario. Again, I don't want to review history, but Roosevelt became bitter because he thought his successor in the presidency did not live up to his expectations and the Republican Party. He felt that McKinley was not a -- not -- that Taft -- that Taft was not a true Republican. And he became embittered.

I have -- I think the president of the United States is leading the country very well.

NOVAK: Senator McCain, you've done something that most senators don't do: You've got your name on a piece of major legislation, the McCain-Feingold Bill. And so it's very interesting that David Broder, my colleague and friend, the eminent columnist, who was a strong supporter of campaign finance reform, wrote in the Washington Post, after taking a good look at that bill -- he wrote the following, and we'll put it up on the screen, "The political parties, already weakened by many forces" -- this is a result of this bill -- "will have lost a source of their financing with the outlawing of soft money, while interest groups, whose influence has grown by leaps and bounds, will be free to play an even larger role in campaigns, thus expanding their grip on government," end quote.

If Dave Broder is correct, your efforts have been in vain, haven't they?

MCCAIN: Well, my question for Mr. Broder, if it would increase the influence of the special interests, why is it that they fought so hard, and shed so much blood, to try to stop it, and are now challenging it in the United States Supreme Court? Every special interest, from the AFL-CIO to the Christian Coalition, to the Republican National Committee, to the Democratic National Committee of the state of California, all the special interests are so opposed to it, you would think they have a different reading than that of Mr. Broder. They should be celebrating, if Mr. Broder was correct.

The fact is, you can't solicit the money anymore, these special interest groups, and that is going to really make a big difference, in my view.

NOVAK: Yes. Clear up something if you would, sir, that there's been a lot of speculation about. Will you campaign this year for members for the House, trying to keep the House in Republican control, who voted against your legislation?

MCCAIN: Yes, but I'd have to have a discussion with them about it, because I don't want to go into their districts and have the subject between them and the media to be, "How come you're campaigning for somebody who opposes campaign finance reform?"

NOVAK: If they want you, you would go in?

MCCAIN: I would have a discussion with them, and certainly do what I could to help them. But I intend to do what I can to maintain a Republican majority in the House and Senate. But I -- look, in the interest of straight talk, if somebody who personally attacked me on the floor of the House, as happened several times over campaign finance reform, no, I'm not going to go and campaign for them, nor should they expect me to.

HUNT: Senator McCain, we have about 30 seconds left. The Federal Elections Commission has frequently gutted the law in the past that allowed the avalanche of soft money under Clinton. Even if you win your court test to McCain-Feingold, don't you think there's a good chance that the FEC would gut your law?

MCCAIN: I think there's every possibility. In 1988, what opened the spigot on soft money was not a court decision or a law, it was a decision by the Federal Election Commission, and then in '96, et cetera. So I believe that there's every danger that the Federal Election Commission, which is, as it is presently constituted, may do exactly the same thing again. I'm very worried.

HUNT: Senator McCain, we're going to take a break now,

But when we come back, we will have the Big Question for John McCain.


HUNT: The Big Question for John McCain. Senator, if, as expected, a race for Senate Republican leader between Trent Lott and Don Nickles materializes, which would be the better Republican leader?

MCCAIN: You know, I'd have to make that assessment if there was that race. I, kind of, think that there's not going to be, but it would depend, I think, on certain circumstances. But I hadn't thought of it in that context. In other words, I'm ducking it.


HUNT: I thought so.

NOVAK: They haven't ask you for their votes yet?

MCCAIN: No, neither one has.

NOVAK: Senator McCain, if the Republican Party wins back control of the Senate, which you said you support, in this year's election, what do you think they should do differently from what they did during the six years they were in control, from '94 through last year?

MCCAIN: I'd cut my ties with the special interests. I'd go ahead with a prescription drug program for seniors. I'd reform Medicare. I'd save Social Security. I would find out what the most important issues to the American people are and embark on that effort. And I would -- again, I would cut my ties with some of the K Street boys that all too often set the agenda for us.

NOVAK: Senator John McCain, thank you very much.

Al Hunt and I will be back with a comment after these messages.


HUNT: Bob, you know, I think John McCain makes this case for a national commission very effectively. And I must say in response to your question, the Pearl Harbor investigation may not have been great, but it got rid of all these loony ideas that FDR was complicit in it. With all these stories coming out, we need a commission.

NOVAK: Didn't get rid of my ideas on that.

But I thought that Senator McCain was very careful not to be critical of the president, particularly as they were making up these alerts for political purposes, but he did say that they were going excessive in too many alerts, making people nervous without any payoff on it.

HUNT: You know, Bob, John McCain really wouldn't be comfortable as a Democratic, with abortion issues, labor unions and some of the other things. But it was very interesting when he said Teddy Roosevelt, who is his hero, would not be comfortable in today's Republican Party. Neither is John McCain.

NOVAK: And when I asked him for a new agenda, if there's a new Republican majority in the Senate, I couldn't tell much of a difference between what he proposed and what the Democrats would propose: Social Security, Medicare reform, prescription drugs. But I still believe, I agree with you, I think John McCain will serve out his career as a Republican.

I'm Robert Novak.

HUNT: And I'm Al Hunt.

NOVAK: Coming up at 7 p.m. on "CAPITAL GANG," should an independent investigation be call to look into intelligence warnings before September 11, the debate whether airline pilots should be armed, plus our newsmaker of the week, Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, on human cloning.

HUNT: Thanks for joining us.




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