The Choice 2008
OPEN VIDEO »
photo of swindle

Ever since he first met John McCain in a Hanoi prison cell in 1970, Swindle has remained his friend. He is an adviser to McCain's campaign and spoke at the 2008 Republican National Convention. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted July 9, 2008.

“John is one of the more gregarious people that I've ever met, and you're instantly attracted to his outgoingness. He's just sort of the life of the party in a way, and in [prison] he was that way, too.”

orson swindle

Tell me about the first time you lay eyes on John McCain.

First of all, I did not know him before we were prisoners. I was shot down a year before he was, and then we first communicated with each other after Christmas of 1970, tapping through walls. And then we were moved with a group of prisoners ... out to an outlying camp as sort of punishment, because they considered us rabble-rousers. John and I were able to talk at that point in time.

We were all in individual cells -- closed walls, not bars. And we were able to whisper under the door and chat with each other. And then a month or so, two months later, they took this group that they had isolated and put us in a cell together. The first time I ever laid eyes on him I was surprised that he was a small guy. ... John is one of the more gregarious people that I've ever met, and you're instantly attracted to his outgoingness. He's just sort of the life of the party in a way, and in that environment he was that way, too. He was full of life and feisty, a fascinating person to get to know. And we wound up sleeping side by side for about 18 months. ...

... You talk about how positive a guy he was when you were prisoners together. Do you remember any incident ... that would give us an example of what you're talking about?

... I can't think of an incident because, number one, we never dwelt on negative things, because that's not a good habit to get in when you're in prison! (Laughs.) You want to try to think positive. You want to be positive. He was kind of an inspirational leader in a sense -- entertaining leader, maybe, was a better word for it.

When we all moved in together, he was the pastor for our church services, having been trained in the Episcopal Academy [High School, in Alexandria, Va.]. He knew all the liturgy, the sequence and the standard operating procedures, and he did a good job with that.

He was quick to be willing to entertain people and help pass the time. He would tell stories of the books he's read and remembered. He knows a number of the Damon Runyon stories, and he can tell them with the dialect that Sheldon Leonard [used]. I think [Leonard] was the old character actor who used to play the guy with the black suit, the black shirt, the black tie. Those guys from Guys and Dolls, he could tell it with the vernacular of those guys. He would do Monday night at the movies, Tuesday night at the movies, Wednesday night at movies, tell all these stories.

You mean he'd literally tell the movie?

Oh, yeah. ... Viva Zapata is his favorite movie. He likes that, but he also liked One-Eyed Jacks. ... But For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan, his favorite all-time character. Almost the fatalistic thing: This guy is going to sacrifice everything for an ideal. ...

... The tapping system, explain what that was. How did that work as a means of communication?

... It basically is taking the alphabet and deleting one letter of your preference with the group's consent. We eliminated the letter "K," so now you have a 5-by-5 matrix of letters: a-b-c-d-e across the top; f-g-h-i-j; l-m-n-o-p; q-r-s-t-u; v-w-x-y-z. So if you want to tap the letter "C," you would tap once for the first line, and 1-2-3 for the third column. You get very proficient at it. ...

So we all were communicators, and I do mean all of us, because when you're isolated and they're attempting to cut you off from all communications, you lust, if you will, for communicating, because you've just got to have something to get your mind engaged in. And we spent hours and hours and hours without contact with anybody else.

You'd run through every thought you ever had in your mind, every memory you ever had. You would design houses. You would write books in your head. My hometown of Camilla, Ga., is about a mile in diameter, and I visually charted every street in town, and I was working on every house in town trying to figure out who lived in them. So you do amazing things in your mind.

And if you don't, what happens to you?

I don't know. ... I think it's impossible to be rational and not want to communicate with people. We did have a couple of guys who went through just brutal torture, and one -- I did not know him but was told by people who saw him at some point in time that he had been beaten so badly that he essentially went into a kind of catatonic state -- ... he was insensitive, it appeared, to pain and beatings, and he didn't communicate. And unfortunately he died in prison and didn't come home, through no fault of his own. He went through a horrible time.

So we knew the perils of isolating yourself further in this environment of isolation. It was just something we couldn't do. The first thing we did, when we heard new prisoners moving in, we did every ingenious thing you can imagine to get communication to them, to let them know somebody's there with them, just to hang on; we've all been through it; just stick with us.

How much was fear with you every day?

In that environment, you never get rid of fear. My dear friend and John McCain's dear friend, [former POW and 1992 independent vice presidential candidate] Adm. Stockdale, Jim Stockdale, used to give a lecture, ... and he would talk about the role that fear plays in our lives, and particularly with us there. And he points out that fear is a double-edged sword. Your fear of failing a cause, failing your fellow prisoner, failing your Marine Corps or United States of America or your family, ... things you are committed to -- your fear of failing them can cause you to do things you would never dream possible. It will cause you to survive. It will cause you to resist beyond things that you never dreamed you could do before.

On the other hand, ... if fear grips you, and you're so fearful of what is coming -- in most cases we could equate that to pain -- ... then you become accommodating to your captors and what they want to do. You become [manipulable]. So that's a negative aspect of it. So fear was always with us. It was a matter of how we handled it, and for the most part, everybody handled it quite nicely. But that's not to say we weren't scared to death a lot.

How hard was it?

How difficult was it being a prisoner? I think every one of us would tell you that probably the most difficult thing was the time. ... My son had just turned 4 when I left, just turned 11 when I came home -- and that's a staggering period of time in a kid's life. When you put it in that perspective for me, I said, "Oh my God, look what I lost."

But then there was the sheer pain of it, and the deprivation and the humiliation. ... It's a horrible experience, and we had to endure it 24 hours a day, seven days a week for five, six, seven, eight, ... nine years. ... The average person can't comprehend that.

And another thing I think the average person can't quite comprehend is, what motivated us? Because I think we've lost a little bit of this in the way we understand military service, the way the general public understands it. ... We just were driven by doing the honorable thing. We all said: "We're going to go home with honor. And if we're going to go home with honor, we're going to fight them every inch of the way. We're not going to give them a damn thing. They'll have to beat it out of us." ...

... When he gets there in Hanoi, ... how much of who he is by the time he gets there -- kind of a maverick or whatever you want to call it -- is apparent to you guys, that this guy is a different kind of guy? Or are you all sort of the same type of guy?

In that environment, outside of the fact that he was a son of admirals and grandson of admirals, John McCain was like us. He was one of us. ... But since I've come home -- watching him, working with him on several occasions and things, and then being involved [as] a close friend in the campaign of 2000 -- I'm convinced that the things that make him what he is today were part of who he was all along. It's hard to grow up in a family with a military legacy that this family has. It goes back, I think, to George Washington's general staff, if I remember correctly. That stuff is there. It's like osmosis. ...

... What does he have?

He's got a sense of honor, a sense of integrity, a sense of being a man, of being courageous, of not being just milquetoast, compliant with the norms. He's adventuresome. Those are things he is today, and I contend he was that way when he was a kid. ...

He told me one of the last things that [his] dad said to him when he left him at the Naval Academy. He said, "Don't ever lie, and don't cheat." What a marvelous message to give a kid. I'm not sure we impart something so simple and so profound as "Don't ever lie, and don't cheat." ...

He goes out for the fleet. He's a young officer, and he's hell-raising, still; disregard of authority to a great extent. And then he's aboard the USS Forrestal. He's sitting in an airplane ready to go on a bombing mission over North Vietnam, and a rocket is fired from another aircraft, goes [into the] fuel tank on his A-4. Thing blows up; all hell breaks loose. And you know the rest of that story: One hundred thirty-four American young sailors die in that. He is not badly injured; he's injured, burned. And his immediate reaction is to volunteer to go to another carrier to continue to fly missions. A lot of people said: "I'm not for this. I'm getting myself home." He probably could have.

Then he gets shot down. And now he's almost dead, and as he fights to survive -- and Col. [George] "Bud" Day is the best one to tell this story, because they dunked John in on him. ... And Bud said that evening that John wouldn't go to sleep. He's in a cast; his eyes are feverish; he's in bad, bad shape. Bud said, "I thought he was going to die."

John wouldn't shut up talking. He's just chattering away; just like you say, he's that way. And Bud, after this early session, he said, "I knew this young man had no intention of dying." (Laughs.) That's just not in his makeup. ...

All these qualities are getting into who he is. They're there; they just haven't been mobilized to do great things. They're fun things, they're pretty rambunctious things, but not the great things. He's in prison, and he's got time to think. And I always talk about the crucible of adversity. He's got character; he's got courage. There's a great sense of integrity from the tradition of his family and the Naval Academy. He's got intellect -- very smart guy. All that's sitting in this crucible in adversity, and out of it comes a guy committed to make a difference.

He didn't get into politics to be somebody. He got in politics to do something, to do tough things. And that's why he wants to be president.

They work him over and work him over and work him over. You can hear it in his voice when we listen to the audio book [of his memoir Faith of My Fathers]. It just kills him to have said that confession. What's the point of the statement? Did he ever talk to you ... about what that meant to him, to sign it and do it?

We all have that same emotion, virtually all. ... And every one of us, having the years of experience there that we did, and having gone through it over and over and over again, and the experiences of others, we knew in our hearts that we had done the best we could. And that's all we ever ask of people, to do the best you can under really difficult circumstances. Resist to the point of mental impairment; don't go beyond that, and we will survive. We will all understand each other.

But we all feel guilty, because the code of conduct says you'll give only name, rank, serial number and date of birth. And John Wayne, of course, could do that because he was tough and he could spit in their eye and get away with it. Well, the real world is this: You can get information from people.

Now, I want to clarify a point, because that gets to a hot debate around this country about torture: What you get is highly questionable. ... They were naive enough to think what we were giving them was worth something. It was not worth anything in a military intelligence standpoint. Propaganda-wise, you know, that's the name of the game. They played [us as] propaganda quite nicely. But even there we would attempt in every way we knew how to mispronounce words; when you're writing to write misconstructed sentences, because they couldn't pick up on it that easily. ...

So you resisted and you resisted and you resisted, but even when you did a pretty darn good job under the circumstances, you always have pangs of guilt that they get it from you. But there's not a damn thing you do about it. We discovered in our experience that the mark of real men was not that you could resist to the death or they would never break you. ... The mark of real men is, once broken, to climb back in the arena as quickly as you possibly could. ...

What did they do to him?

What did they do to John? I talked to him about it, but I honestly don't remember. ... I'll describe what they did to me, and I'm sure they did the same thing to him. Of course, he has broken arms and legs that don't bend and don't have the flexibility that mine have. But when I was first captured, they put parachute riser cords above my elbows and cinched it down so tight that they completely cut off the flow of blood to the lower part of my arm. Also, it so compressed the ligaments that I couldn't move my fingers. My hand was clenched; I couldn't straighten it out.

Then they cinched that down. They took part of this cord and pulled it on the left side; took this cord and pulled it on the right behind my back, with three people on either side. Pulled the ropes until they had my forearms together up my spine with my hands up here. Then they wrapped the cord around me to keep me in that position. Again, the tourniquet is still on, and your hands -- I've seen my hands literally twice the size they are now, from swelling from the lack of blood flow.

Once they had me in that position they took strapping and strapped it where they could pull against my shoulders to pin them back, and they pulled my shoulders out of the sockets. And then they wrapped more cord around me holding in that position. And my thumbs, again, are in back of my head. Then they put cord over my thumbs and [looped it over] the rafters in this little hut and lifted me up off the ground and then just beat the living hell out of me. That's insanity; that takes you right quickly to insanity, because you're looking at something that hurts so bad you can't believe it. ...

If what they were about was propaganda, what was better in propaganda terms than the fact that you had [the son of] the CINCPAC commander [Commander in Chief, Pacific Command]?

He became CINCPAC commander later. John was a prize, and as you know, they referred to him as "the prince." "We've got the prince" -- their sense of nobility, I guess, with rank. And here's this four-star admiral that's about to take over the war in the Pacific; he literally was the main driver of the effort, and they got his son. So they see just incredible propaganda, and there was.

And of course, John is not in good shape. He could have died virtually anytime those first couple of years because he was so banged up and deformed. Try to put yourself in his shoes. He would have been about 30, 31 at that time, but he's thinking: "I'm going to live to 70 years old, maybe, and I'm going to be deformed all my life. I've got to get out and get some treatment for this, get this thing straight before these bones set," and all that. That's a natural thought; all of us had thoughts like that. But then he said: "I may die. I want to get home to my wife and children." Every one of us thought about that. We weren't confronted with the opportunity the way he was, because of who he was. ...

They make him an offer. ... The offer is, basically, to let him go home: You can walk out. You're badly injured; you can walk out -- gesture of the Vietnamese people, you know, that BS. ... He said, "No, I can't do that." He's not talking to them, but it's in his mind; I know what's going on. ... All these people in the Navy that he's flown with, they got shot down; they're here. "And I'm going to go home before they're going to go home? No way. Can't do that. Honor won't let me do that. Sense of duty won't let me do that." ...

He gives them a statement, a propaganda statement, and he says in the book that he just worried so much that he'd broken this pact you're talking about, that he was depressed, thought about taking his own life. Apparently a common response?

Common thought, a feeling of guilt. ... We wanted to take our lives because we couldn't take the pain, and if we couldn't take the pain, we were scared to death we'd do something to hurt our country. It's better that we get out of the picture than hurt our country. That's why some of us on occasions had that thought. It's a desperate thought, but it's not because we were nuts. ...

He also says that he was ... worried about his dad hearing about him having done it, that it really bothered him, and that later he and his father had the conversation, and his father says to him, "You did the best you could."

I can understand that. John frequently says: "The essence of why we're here is to devote ourselves to a cause bigger than we are, something bigger than just me. Me's not worth a damn. It's something bigger than me; it's something bigger than you; it's something that we can accomplish, that moves the ball down the field in a positive sense."

I feared embarrassing my son, who didn't even know me. I feared embarrassing my family. I feared embarrassing my Marine [Corps], which was sort of like my family. I feared embarrassing or hurting my country. ... Again, it's about honor. It's about those obligations, spoken or sworn to, that you just don't do things like that. So yeah, I can understand his dad saying, "You did the best you could."

Did he ever talk about how he felt about his dad and his grandfather?

Oh, he had tremendous admiration for them. ... There's this great picture of his grandfather and his father on the [USS] Missouri for the surrender [of the Japanese in World War II]. And then his grandfather gets on a plane, flies about three days, I think, to get home. ... He gets home to San Diego; they have a reception for him. He's feeling bad and goes upstairs and dies -- 64 years old, completely worn out by three years of continuous warfare. These are stories that our children should be made aware of. ... John McCain is a real live hero, and his grandfather was a great, great American and a great hero, and his father was the same. ...

When you guys come back, do you lose touch with him? Or do you stay in touch, and do you know about all the things that happened with him along the road to the White House?

We've stayed in pretty close contact. We were living together when they started breaking us up by date of shootdown. ... I turned around just as I'm walking out, and I said: "I'll see you when we get home. Count on it." And I left on the 4th of March, and I think he left around the 14th of March -- my memory's a little faded right now. And I happened to come home to Jacksonville, Fla., because my family was in southwest Georgia. And his family was in Jacksonville, Fla., so he came home to the same place. And when he got off the plane at Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, that evening, I was standing there waiting on him. So I kept that commitment.

And then over the years, we've kept in touch. We've visited. We do reunions. John and I are a couple of the key players in setting up a reunion in 1975 out in Los Angeles. ... He had a big squadron down in Jacksonville, Fla., and I was flying, before I left the Marine Corps, with a Reserve squadron over there, and I'd stop in to visit him then. ... Then he winds up [the Navy's] Senate liaison, so I get to see him there. ... And then he runs for Congress, gets elected. I'm here off and on, and we worked together on a few projects.

And then I leave government with the Reagan administration. He's in the Senate by that time, and we stay in close touch; when I'm in town, meet, have dinner. I ran for Congress a couple of times out in Hawaii. He came out, campaigned for me on both occasions. ...

And then I was appointed as a commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission -- at John's recommendation, by the way. He was chairman of the Commerce Committee, and the Federal Trade Commission has oversight by the Commerce Committee. And so I was there seven years, testified before him on hearings and worked with him and his staff. We've just been good friends, and that's my only role: I'm just a good friend who really cares about him; I care about my country. And that's a nice combination when you're electing a president. I think we're going to be better off for it.

... Were you around when he saw his first [wife,] Carol, ... and the things that had happened to her and how that affected him?

... The first thing I asked to do when I got home, ... I said, "Can someone arrange for me to meet Carol?" They said, "Absolutely." So within days after I was home, she comes over to the hospital to visit with me. And so I got to know Carol very quickly, and the reason I wanted to see her, I just wanted to assure her that John was OK. I did not know she had had this horrible [car] accident, all this talk about being near death. Carol almost died, just a horrible experience.

And he didn't know.

He didn't know. He didn't know. And I remember when I first saw her, I said, "My God, how much more have we all, including her, got to endure?" It's hard to describe how this weighed on us. Guys came home, some of their children had died; their wives had divorced them -- they thought they were dead, or they knew they weren't dead, and they divorced them anyway. Our lives were just shattered in so many ways.

And yet some of the guys, they came home, their wives were still there; their girlfriends were still there. They married them, and they've lived happily ever after. Just remarkable women. All the women, all the wives were remarkable. They just had a hellish experience. ...

... Let me ask you about the Navy [Senate] liaison job. Did you see him when he was doing that? I've talked to [former Sen.] Gary Hart [D-Colo.], I talked to [former Sen.] Bill Cohen [R-Maine], I talked to others, and they all just love the guy. They said he was amazing at that job, but it's there that he gets bit by the political bug.

I think his interest in politics is a natural interest. ... John is one of the smartest people I've ever known. He remembers everything. He remembers books, details. I've never seen anybody absorb facts as quickly as he can and then be able to articulate them. ...

And so he's traveling with the likes of Sen. Cohen and Sen. Hart and Sen. John Tower [R-Texas]; he became particularly close to Sen. John Tower. And I think he is fascinated by the world they live in and what they're doing, because ... he's of the Navy, ... so he has a natural interest in our national security posture and what we're going to do in this world and where are we going.

So I think you put all those things together, and he's got a natural interest in maybe what's after this, maybe politics. And then here he is in front of these guys, and they say: "Wow, look at this guy. He's different. He's had this incredible experience. He's one of the most likable people you'll ever meet in your life. He's fun to be around. He's smart as hell." And they say, "This guy could be in politics." ...

... During all those times that you were talking to Sen. McCain [in Vietnam], did you guys ever talk about politics? Was there ever a glimmer in his eye that maybe, if we ever get the hell out here, maybe politics is something that I'd like to take a swing at?

We definitely talked about politics, because we were victims of a political decision-making process in the war. We held a mock election by tapping the walls of the other room for who you're voting for, McGovern or Nixon. I think McGovern got two votes, and everybody else was for Nixon, as you might well have expected!

I don't recall ever talking about running for elected office, no. But I think a core group of us ... we said, if we ever get out of this place, we got to do everything we can to be involved in the political process so we never repeat this kind of conduct, where we get involved in something that we probably don't understand. A noble cause or not, if we don't understand it and if we aren't committed to victory, then we shouldn't get involved in it. ...

He's got to be conflicted at some moment. I mean, the Navy is the family business, right? But he's going to go the other way; he's going to go into politics. ... Does he ever talk to you about that, about: "Gee, should I take the star? Should I not take the star? Are they going to offer me a star? Are they going to make me an admiral?"

I never once heard him mention to me anything about getting promoted to admiral. It would almost seem a natural part of the process, given his history, not because his father was an admiral or his grandfather was an admiral [but] because he was qualified to be an admiral. He had had an incredibly distinguished career, had suffered some things nobody else had. Yes, it was unique. He got a squadron command, the biggest squadron in the Navy. That was a real plum. And he took a squadron that was mediocre and turned it into an award-winning [Meritorious] Unit Commendation squadron. That's pretty damned good. ...

So he could have moved up in the Navy.

I think if he had chosen to stay, he probably would have. But that's just speculation, and it's irrelevant, really, because he went on to be something greater than an admiral.

He's in Arizona. He becomes United States senator. And along comes [the Keating Five scandal]. We talked to a lot of people about Keating, and they all say he felt so harmed by it, by the way he was marginalized, by the way he was kept in tight because he was a Republican, by all those things. One reporter we talked to said that they were interviewing him, and he said, "This has hurt me worse than anything that ever happened."

Yeah, I've heard him say that personally: It's the worst thing he ever went through in his life. And why was it the worst thing? I think I know. He didn't say it this way, but it has to do with those things I talked about that got pushed into him long time ago: integrity, honor. His integrity and his honor and his truthfulness were in question.

And he felt, number one, that he contributed to that by naivete in getting too close to the flame, so to speak, like the moth. But as you said, they weren't about to let him out of that trap. The Democrats weren't about to let him and [former Sen.] John Glenn [D-Ohio] walk out of that thing. I mean, they were pretty well exonerated by the Keating hearings or commission, whatever it was called, but they weren't going to let him out of that show. They had to sort of water down the impact on those that they did find fault with. ...

It's around the Keating things that one of the reporters I talked to said, "Sen. McCain loses his temper pretty intensely." ... What's that about?

In all honestly, I've never seen him lose his temper. I've never seen it. That's absolutely the truth. Now, that's not to say he doesn't have a temper, because I've got a temper; ... we all have tempers.

John -- if I had to suggest anything that would trigger that temper, it's not disagreeing with him; it's not competing with him. It has to do with integrity and betraying a bond or a commitment or something like that. That kind of thing really irritates him, because that goes with the core of what he's all about. We can disagree, but don't lie to me. Like his father [said], "Don't lie, and don't cheat." ...

When he runs in 2000, the Bush guys do some things in South Carolina --

Despicable.

Talk about it a little bit.

I know most of it from reading others who chronicle the thing. We soundly kicked their butts in New [Hampshire]. We felt we were going to win, and I think they were desperate. Think about it: Had Bush lost South Carolina, it was over for George Bush. And they could not afford to lose.

As we were moving around the state we were starting to hear about these push-poll terms they used. They call you up and say: "We'd like to ask you a few questions. Did you know that McCain's wife is a drug addict? Did you know that he fathered the black child that they have?" And God, that kind of stuff -- that angers me just thinking about it. I could pop off right now and lose my temper. It's just despicable. What they did was despicable. ...

But to John's credit, he said, "Put that behind us." He said, "I'm going to campaign for Gov. Bush." And had John not campaigned for Gov. Bush, I don't think Gov. Bush would have been elected in 2000. ...

And how hard was that for him to do? He takes things personally. You talk about breaking honor.

He takes things personally, but he's a pretty big guy, and he realized that the country has to go forward. We can't sit around -- as some of us who were very close to him just wanted to sit there -- and dwell. He said: "We've got to get beyond this. The country has to have the best possible leadership." And he said: "I think that's Gov. Bush. So let's get behind him and go for it." And he went out and campaigned for it.

Once more, he has campaigned probably more than any single member of the U.S. Congress for other Republicans running for congressional seats and Senate seats. And yet they didn't support him in very large numbers during the campaign. ...

In the first term [under] Bush, ... he flirts with the Democrats; he flirts with becoming an independent anyway. Do you know about that?

No. You say "he flirts." Allegedly flirts. There's not a snowball's chance in hell he was ever going to be a Democrat. There's no way.

No, he was going to be an independent.

Well, he didn't even want to be an independent. He is a staunch Republican. He believes totally in the concepts of the Republican Party and the thoughts and leadership of Lincoln and Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt. I mean, if you've ever read a biography of Teddy Roosevelt, you'll see it enacted in John McCain -- ... the attitude, the desire to do something bigger, to make a difference, to deviate from the norm, because a deviation from the norm is essential. ...

And he believed that the Republican Party was the best way. He was not going to jump the ship. And I guarantee he wasn't going to run as vice president with [Sen.] John Kerry [D-Mass.]. There's no way. That was a Democrat story more than it was anything else. ...

It's 2007, and he seems like the front-runner. He's got a big budget; he's got a lot of offices all over the country; he's riding high. But it's like a round peg in a square hole when you look back at it. ... What did you think when you watched it all fall apart?

I wasn't that much involved, for one thing. When things started to go awry, I had my theories. And he asked me, "Go over there and sit in on the meetings and tell me what you think." And I did that for a week or two, and he said, "What do you think?" I said, "It's a bleeping mess." (Laughs.)

What did you see?

I saw a massive operation dominated by political consultants making a lot of money, ... excessive spending of money and a mentality that would have him pretty well scripted and doing it the way ... they did with President Bush.

Every candidate is different. I was in the Reagan administration, and one of our favorite statements -- and Reagan had some difficult times from time to time -- "Let Reagan be Reagan." And boy, if we thought Reagan should be Reagan, you better know, let McCain be McCain. John doesn't script well, and that's why he does so well in these town hall meetings. It's his element. ... And when you try to take that and make it into a shape and say, "That's the way you're going to be," he doesn't do that very well. And I think that's the most admirable trait about him: he is who he is. And with him you're going to get the warts and freckles, and you're going to get him screwing up every now and then. ...

And I just said: "John, you've just got to be yourself and surround yourself with a small team. All we've got to do is win three or four of the first five or six primaries and we've got this thing won." ...

... What was it like that night [that he won] in New Hampshire?

Wonderful! It was not as euphoric as it was in 2000, ... but it was grand. As I told people, I said, "One vote, that's all we need; one vote, we win." And we were confident we were going to win. It was just a great experience. The room was packed. It was, given everything that John had been through the past year and being essentially pronounced dead, it just was pretty damn satisfying. ...

This comeback, this Lazarus-like comeback, again resonates from the Vietnam experience. How?

He doesn't know the word "quit," for one thing. He's driven by beliefs and convictions. He's got all the tools. We probably haven't elected a person with more of the right stuff, if I may borrow a phrase, than John McCain. I mean, I'm a big fan of Ronald Reagan; I thought he was just a remarkable president, remarkable leader. But he didn't have the qualifications John McCain had. He ran a great big state, and that's a hell of a qualification, I might add. But I want a smart president, I want a courageous president, and I want a president with great integrity.

I want a president that's had some life experiences so that when the proverbial stuff hits the fan, that person's got something to fall back on. ... John McCain has absolutely been there before. And that's one of the things that scares me about Barack Obama. I have no doubts he's a decent person. He doesn't have the foggiest idea what he will do as president. He has no experience to base it on. He has no foreign relations experience. He has no real knowledge of the history of these countries and why things are.

That's one of the things about John: He understands history. He knows history backwards and forwards. He knows why things are as they are, how they came to be that way. And he knows what's succeeded in history before and what's failed. Those are just extraordinary talents. It's who John McCain is.

posted october 14, 2008

FRONTLINE series home · privacy policy · journalistic guidelines

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation