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Before McCain’s Speech, Shields and Brooks Weigh its Likely Impact

September 4, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks offer insight on the points Sen. John McCain will make and reflect on the Republican convention before the Arizona senator steps up to the podium.

JIM LEHRER: And now thoughts from Shields and Brooks about all of this, John McCain.

Mark, what are your thoughts about this remarkable exchange here with Bob Timberg, and Mr. Butler, and Orson Swindle about the meaning to John McCain of that five-and-a-half years in prison as now extrapolated as something that is discussed as a candidate for president of the United States.

Your thoughts about that?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Well, first of all, can I get a plug in for Bob Timberg’s wonderful book…

MARK SHIELDS: … that was a great piece Jeffrey did, “The Nightingale’s Song,” which is not only McCain, it’s Bud McFarlane, John Poindexter, Ollie North, and now Senator Jim Webb, five Annapolis graduates. And I commend it. It’s a great piece of…

JIM LEHRER: Beautifully written.

MARK SHIELDS: Beautifully written…

JIM LEHRER: Marvelous stories.

MARK SHIELDS: … wonderfully researched…

JIM LEHRER: I agree.

MARK SHIELDS: … and lyrically presented.

JIM LEHRER: I agree.

MARK SHIELDS: But what I found — John McCain’s own military experience and prisoner of war experience makes him a special person in the Senate in many respects. He came to the Congress.

And the first act he really did, in terms of national events, was taking on a very popular Republican president who wanted to send American troops — and did dispatch American troops into Beirut. And Sen. Fritz Hollings said at the time, “There are too many to die, too few to fight.” And John McCain agreed with that.

JIM LEHRER: And, remember, Fritz Hollings was a big Democrat and John McCain…


JIM LEHRER: … and a hawk, right, but a Democrat nonetheless.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. And they both found themselves on the same side.

And, you know, so John McCain has become a figure of importance on national security debates. I mean, he spearheaded to a great degree the United States entry into Iraq and his — you know, says now it was a catastrophic — and he calls it a colossal failure of intelligence going into Iraq.

So, I mean, it’s mixed, Jim. I mean, I don’t think it’s clear. What was impressive was to see those with whom he had served in that POW camp campaign for him. I mean, you know, old men go door-to-door in New Hampshire for him, including Bud Day and others who — with the Medal of Honor around their neck.

Stating a case for independence

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, David, their connection between that experience 35 years ago that John McCain had, and now as a candidate for president of the United States, and what he brings or doesn't bring to the table because of that?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I once went down to New Orleans with Bud Day and John McCain for a filming of the movie of John McCain's life. And they built an exact replica of the Hanoi Hilton. They had guards dressed up.

And I walked with McCain and Day through what looked like the old cell. And Day was quite moved, and McCain was just like, "Well, this is kind of weird." And he was not taken aback. And I really don't think naturally he's somebody who lives in the past.

He wanted to move forward. He's told me many times he's kind of bored with all the stories, hearing them over and over again.

But I do think there are two things that he's kept with him. One is a genuine sense of humility, the sense that others who were with him did things better than he did. I think that's genuine, and that's one of the things that makes him exceptional for a politician.

The second is a foreign policy sense, which Mark talked about, but which is very hard to predict. You know, after Vietnam, he came home and studied Vietnam. And in the first action, Reagan going into Lebanon, he was against it. It was like Vietnam syndrome all over.

But then you go to Iraq, he's much more aggressive. And so I think ideologically it's -- the Vietnam experience has shaped him in many ways of imagining wars, and really distrusting generals and leaders, but it has not led to a consistent foreign policy doctrine. It depends issue by issue, Lebanon versus Iran.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, Trey Grayson of Kentucky told Judy, along with Olympia Snowe, that John McCain is a different kind of Republican. What does that mean to you when you hear somebody say that about John McCain?

MARK SHIELDS: He better be in 2008, because you don't want to run as a Republican. You don't want to run as "I am the definitive Chevrolet Republican here on all counts," because you're going to get your clock cleaned in this election. Everybody will tell you that, the Republicans...

JIM LEHRER: Because of George W. Bush or...

MARK SHIELDS: Because of George W. Bush, because of the discrediting of the party brand, because of the record of the party, because of disenchantment, the lack of enthusiasm, fewer people identifying with the party, more people identifying with the Democrats.

I just wanted to say one thing on David. John McCain may not want to talk about the POW and may feel uncomfortable doing it, but this convention has been very, very heavy on it. I mean...

JIM LEHRER: Just about every speech.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he's a politician. He knows he has to do it for the political effect.

JIM LEHRER: Sure, sure.

MARK SHIELDS: But it's been a biographical convention. I mean, it's been -- up until tonight, Jim, this has been a biographical week about John McCain. Every speaker has spoken about it.

JIM LEHRER: Now, where do you -- you've mentioned it before, but define what you think a different Republican is for the purposes at least of winning this 2008 election?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, on Tuesdays, the Republicans have a policy lunch, and somebody will get up and give the party line. McCain sits in the back hooting and hollering, ridiculing the party line. He's not a party-line kind of guy. He's just not temperamentally a party-line kind of guy.

I think his philosophy -- we've seen Teddy Roosevelt mentioned a few times. His philosophy really is a Teddy Roosevelt philosophy of combating evil, going after corruption, which is much more reform and progressive than Ronald Reagan.

And so it's an ancient version of Republicanism, which, if McCain is smart, he will revive tonight.

JIM LEHRER: And we will hear that tonight?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, hopefully.

MARK SHIELDS: Better hear it, Jim. With a 95 percent voting record with George Bush, he'd better establish some independence.


And speaking of what we're going to hear tonight, before we go, let's go back to Judy Woodruff on the floor.

Judy, tell us what's going to happen.

Convention setup changed for McCain

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Jim, as I do that, I thought I'd take you right up to the front-middle of the floor tonight to let you see exactly what the Republicans have done.

As you can see, they've brought the stage right out into the center of the convention floor. They moved Ohio. They split the Ohio delegates. They've brought the Pennsylvania delegates forward.

And lest you think they get everything done way, way ahead of time, they are still up there right now working on that lectern, making sure it can go up and go down smoothly.

For all of this, the focus is John McCain. We're going to hear speeches throughout the evening, but the final hour is John McCain. He's going to talk about his own background, his military background. He's going to talk about what he believes in.

But we are told by the campaign that mainly he's going to talk about how he wants to change the culture of Washington. They know that he needs to make a contrast, and he will make a contrast with Barack Obama, and they know he will inevitably be compared tonight with Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic convention a week ago, 85,000 people at Invesco Field in Denver.

So it will be interesting tonight to see how what they put together compares with what we saw a week ago.


JIM LEHRER: Yes, Judy, one quick question. The idea that changing the stage that way is so -- he'll be walking around rather than behind a podium the standard way. That's the deal right? Is that what that's all about?

JUDY WOODRUFF: They are being a little coy about that. They haven't told us, but he has the freedom to walk all the way out. There's a lectern back at the traditional part of the stage and then all the way out at the extension. They've been playing with the lectern that goes up and down. So we'll have to watch.

JIM LEHRER: All right, well, we'll see what happens. Thanks again, Judy.

And, as always, in addition to what we're doing on television, just a reminder, we have extensive convention coverage online. Just go to where you'll find us always at the top of the page.

And we'll see you later this evening for our complete PBS coverage of closing night of the Republicans in St. Paul and again here on the NewsHour tomorrow evening. For now, I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you, and good night.