NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - Bill Moyers Interviews Senator John McCain

BILL MOYERS: We turn now from money and the American economy to money and American politics. Faithful viewers of NOW know this is one of our favorite subjects. It's also a passion for my guest, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. He's just written a new book in which he honestly discusses how he got tripped up by too much money in politics, and about other subjects as well. It's called WORTH FIGHTING FOR.

Well, he has a fight on his hands with the campaign finance law that was recently passed which he sponsored along with Democratic Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. That law is being attacked from many sides: by the two political parties, by the Federal Election Commission, and in the courts. Welcome to NOW.


BILL MOYERS: Were you able to follow the hearings before those three judges in Washington last week?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I was briefed on it. I was back in Arizona, but my people were there, and they gave me a pretty good report.

BILL MOYERS: I have with me some of the documents revealed in those hearings. They confirm everything you've been saying for years now, how the system really works: give us the money and we'll give you the legislation. Do you think your colleagues will begin to listen to you now?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I don't know if they will or not. You know, this is a very addictive system. It's so much easier to raise money in hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars than in one thousand-dollar or two thousand-dollar contributions. But I think they're tired of it. There was recent comments by Senator Zell Miller of Georgia where he said after a period of fund raising he felt like a prostitute after a busy day.

BILL MOYERS: Can a government run by prostitutes and addicts claim to be legitimate?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I don't think so, and I think what happens is that the public interest is not served; the special interests are. We passed a homeland security bill, which was important. The House of Representatives passed it and put some special interests provisions on it [in left tem]. One was, guess who for, a major drug company, who had been huge contribution...contributors in the last campaign.

And let me remind you, recent data shows that the pharmaceutical companies who are the largest single contributors, they spent about $30 million dollars in the last campaign insulating incumbents from a tax for not having passed prescription drug bills for seniors.

So we were able to put in those special interest provisions, but we didn't have time to take care of the unemployed whose benefits will soon run out.

BILL MOYERS: Every version of the National Energy Legislation provides billions of dollars in subsidies for the fossil fuel industry that has poured millions of dollars into electing a compliant Congress and a White House. Do you smell a rat there?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I don't see it as a whole lot different from a lot of other legislation that goes through the Congress which special interests have enormous influence on. In 1996 we passed a bill called the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. Telecommunications issues, as you know, are incredibly complex. Lobbyists wrote that bill. Since then we have had no real reform of the telecommunications to say the least, and a consumer has paid more in the cost of long distance calls, cable rates, the list goes on and on. But those special interests have done very, very well.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think Vice President Cheney should release the names of those industry officials with whom he met secretly when he was drafting the National Energy Policy?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Sure. I've always believed in open government, and that should be part of it, absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: The Non-Partisan Center for Responsive Politics says less than one-tenth of one percent of the country gave 85 percent, almost 85 percent, of all itemized contributions in our recent elections. What does that tell you, Senator?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Well, it tells me that it's huge amounts of money contributed by a handful of Americans that are dictating the legislative agenda here in Congress.

BILL MOYERS: If you were an ordinary citizen do you think you'd have a chance up against that system?


BILL MOYERS: The Federal Election Commission has left some very large loopholes as you indicate in your bill. Those loopholes will allow millions of dollars in soft money to still go to the political parties -- the very thing you were trying to prevent.

Now, the American people pay to support that commission, but it functions as a lap dog frankly for the two parties. Why don't we just abolish it?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We're going to introduce legislation in January to fundamentally restructure or abolish it. And that will be hard, because both parties are very satisfied with a commission that will gridlock.

Now, the reason why the Federal Election Commission passed regulations that created loopholes in these laws is because they had a lame duck democrat whose term had expired who was voting with the three republican commissioners.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I demanded that the lame duck democrat be replaced by Senator Daschle's nominee, which was the way that we usually operate, a Republican and a Democrat. And guess what? The administration gave me their word that they would appoint her as a recess appointment because they had done that with the other Republican.

And they waited until after the regulations were issued before giving her a recess appointment despite the fact that in writing I had gotten their word that she would be recess appointed in October.

BILL MOYERS: If you can't trust them, why can we?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I don't...I can't answer that, except to say that in 20 years around this town I've never had my word...I've never had people break their word to me in this fashion.

BILL MOYERS: You said earlier this week also that while President Bush signed the McCain-Feingold bill, his people are doing everything behind the scenes they can to weaken it as much as possible. Why don't you call the President and ask him to lay off?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Perhaps I should, Bill. Perhaps I should.

BILL MOYERS: Who is it who was suing to declare unconstitutional the McCain-Feingold Bill, and why do they consider it unconstitutional?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I think you just look at those who are involved in the suit. It's public knowledge. The ACLU, the NRA, National Right to Life, The Republican Party, the Democratic Party of California. You know, it's public knowledge.

BILL MOYERS: With your own White House double crossing you, and with your own party and the Democratic party trying to undermine your bill, what hope do you have of changing the system from within?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We'll keep going to the American people, Bill, and they will respond just as they responded in the past. We've got a little army out there of people who are supporting us on reform issues, and they'll continue to do so. And again, I think…I cannot overstate the importance of Russ Feingold in this fight. He's an honest and decent man, and a person who…we have stuck together through thick and thin.

BILL MOYERS: It's so clear that both parties have become so corrupted by money that you can't change the system from inside the bordello. I mean, would you consider running for President in the year 2004 as an independent?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: No, I would not, Bill. I don't envision that scenario. I'll keep up the crusade for reform, but I had my run at it and I'm proud of it, but you know, I don't want to.... As much as I admired Harold Stassen I don't want to be one of those [LAUGHTER].

BILL MOYERS: But Harold Stassen aside, most of the momentum for reforming politics has come from third parties whose candidate ran on principle and on ideas. I mean, wouldn't you like to go down in history that way?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Yes, but I also have to consider viability. I also think that I can make reforms within the republican party as I just did with campaign finance reform, although any reform has to be bipartisan, we all know that.

I'll continue the struggle and fight, but I think it's not.... If I thought it was do-able, maybe I would consider it. But I still believe in the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and I want to see us return to those.... Theodore Roosevelt was the great reformer. He took on the robber barons. He was a great conservationist. know, we've got to return to his kinds of principles in my view.

BILL MOYERS: Senator, in your home state of Arizona, a number of candidates recently were elected to office running with public funding, public financing, which you support, which you endorsed. What do you think about that experiment there?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I think it's good overall. I think it needs to, like any other new experiment, it needs to have some wrinkles taken out of it. But we had more people run for public office than any time in the history of our state, and that's what it was all about.

As I say, there's some fixes that need to be made, but it was a new experiment, and overall I think was very successful and interestingly the ones who are running, you know what they're telling me? They said, surprise, surprise, I spend my time talking to voters not to contributors.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that could become a model for the nation as a whole?


BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much, Senator McCain, for joining us…