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Senator John McCain Discusses the RNC Opening Night

Following his speech at the Republican National Convention in New York Monday night, Sen. John McCain talks with Jim Lehrer about his role in President George Bush's reelection campaign, his relationship with the president and Sen. John Kerry, and the war in Iraq.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Earlier tonight after his speech we talked with Sen. John McCain. Let's go now to that interview. Welcome.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Sen. McCain, welcome.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Thank you.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    We'll start with an unfair question. How did you feel about your speech and how it went and how it was received?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    I was very pleased the way it was received. I thought it was very warm, and more applause than I thought, because I was trying to make a speech that wasn't lending itself to too much applause, but I was pleased that it was well received.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Toward the end in particular it struck us at least that it was almost an attempt to say cool it, Republicans, let's not attack the other side too strongly. Did we misread that?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    No. That was part of it, that I wanted part of the message, not a big part of it, but a part of the message that, look, the real enemy is out there plotting as we speak. And Democrats are not our enemies. They may be our adversaries, they may be our challenge, but they're not our enemies, and this campaign has become very bitterly partisan.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    In fact, you said it's — you told the Associated Press a couple weeks ago that it's one of the most bitter in American history.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    I wasn't around for all of American history, but I think it's the most partisan and bitter that I've seen since I've been involved. And the first campaign that I had any real involvement of was 1984.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And you were trying to say something about, that was your message tonight, were you speaking to that concern of yours?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    My message was I wanted George Bush reelected and that the war on terror is an overwhelming, overriding challenge that we face. But of course I did add that I wanted us to try to — they're not our enemies, those who disagree with us, because there's going to come a time beginning next January when we're going to have to work together on a lot of issues.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    No matter who's president.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Exactly.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Much has been made, Senator, about that you're now a new close friend of George W. Bush and you're an old close friend of John Kerry. First of all, just for the record, what is your relationship with President Bush right now?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    It's fine, but it's been fine since the year 2000 when two months after he won the primaries we met in Pittsburgh, I campaigned vigorously for him in 2000, and I campaigned for the Republicans in 2002, I campaigned in New Hampshire for him last January. We have a very friendly relationship, and we always have.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you talk to him regularly?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Pretty regularly. I mean he's the president of the United States. But when it's an issue of importance, then I do. But —

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you have access to —

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Sure, absolutely, absolutely, whenever I want it, but I don't abuse it.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Does he ask you for advice?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Yes. But our relationship is such, and I don't mean to describe it in too much detail, but we have a comfortable relationship; we have a lot of common interests, a lot of friends, common interests in sports, you know, so we have —

    But one thing I try not to do is what almost every other American tries to do and say you've got to do this. I mean, you know, it's not pleasant for any president of the United States or anyone in a position of authority.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, how would you describe your relationship with John Kerry? He said you're close friends.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Excellent, we are very good friends. And there was an article in one of the newspapers the other day; I said that we didn't socialize a lot. No, we don't socialize a lot, but we've traveled to Hanoi on a number of occasions and we've worked together on a lot of issues. And I didn't in any way mean to, any of my comments to be construed that John Kerry and I are not good friends. And he has my respect.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But you said in that same story, it was in the Washington Post, that you never had a meal together, just the two of you.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    We've had — I've been to his house in Georgetown once. But the lifestyle in Washington is not that you do a lot of socializing any more. On Friday I'm back in Arizona with my family. I mean it's — Washington, it isn't that environment. But he is a good friend and he has my respect.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    I don't want to make too big a deal of this, but the bottom line is, is that both sides want to embrace John McCain, and they're doing it. And you don't seem to mind.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Well, I mean, there's very little that I can do except to–

    I think that the reason why I have a certain amount of respect is because people think that I will stand up and say and do what I believe is right. And I'm not, that's not always the correct path, but it's been what I think is right. And yes, I regret it when I see our Senate in gridlock, and when I see these allegations and accusations, of failure to be patriotic and all that.

    But it's a very interesting situation, I will agree, but the one thing that the three of you know, everything in politics is very transient.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Yes. Mark said earlier this evening that for all practical purposes you were George W. Bush's running mate. Explain to the senator what your thesis was.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    They think you're the running mate; tomorrow morning you're leaving here with President Bush. Friday you're leaving with President Bush. I mean, he's kissing you in public at this point. I don't know, I haven't seen him kiss Dick Cheney. (Laughter)

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    — private —

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Maybe they kiss in private.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, I don't know. I mean I know your position on gay marriage.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    I think the president and the vice president have a very close relationship and one that the vice president is basically the deputy of the president and the president relies on Dick for a lot because of his previous experience. My God he's the most experienced vice president perhaps that you could ever name in history. I'm sure there's been others. But former secretary of defense, former chief of staff to the president of the United States, and the one thing that President Bush lacked to some degree when he came to the presidency was a lot of Washington experience, particularly relations with Congress.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Can I ask you a question, Senator?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Sure.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    And that is — you said in the speech, "sacrifices borne and not shared equally by all Americans." Doesn't war demand inequality of sacrifice? I mean, everyone we see – and this is a war that I mean regardless of how you feel, the sacrifice has been borne exclusively by those in uniform, their families, while the rest, they're financing it with tax cuts. I mean how do you say that isn't a great American tradition of collective sacrifice?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    I think the reason why the wounds of the Vietnam War are still so open, perhaps even worse than you and I had imagined having lived through it is because of the inequality of the Vietnam War. We asked our poorest Americans to go out and fight while many of the others did not.

    I agree, I think we ought to ask more of the American people in this war on terror. I think we should expand the Peace Corps; I think we should expand AmeriCorps, I think we should have someone serve 18 months in the military for $18,000 in educational benefits. I think we should call on more Americans, all Americans to join us in this war.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Let's open the ugly door of partisanship here – you know, aside from you talking about civility, it seems to me the most heartfelt part of the speech was the call to war, the cause you believe in, and in that call to war one of the things you talked about was that the most important challenge we face is keeping nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Yes.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Voters at home, what's the difference between the two parties, how do you make up your mind on that choice? Why are Republicans better than Democrats?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    First of all, I think that President Bush has proven his leadership and his qualifications by his leadership. I also think that in the case for example of the vote authorizing going to war that probably showed that Republicans —

    But I hate to get into this questioning of patriotism on the part of Democrats. But I think that there is probably a little more of this, of an attitude that perhaps the United States is not doing enough internationally. And maybe they're right to a degree. But my basis for my support of the president is what he's done, a proven record and that's what I think qualifies him.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Let me ask you a question that we've been talking about since the evening began. As you look at this whole, the convention but in the context of this election, do you think that Iraq is really going to be the deciding issue? How that whole thing has gone? We went in and how we've done since we got in there, or do you think jobs and the economy will eventually overtake it, or do you know?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    I think Iraq still, Jim, and it will be the first time in I don't know how many years I guess since the Vietnam War. I still think this is a very tenuous time and if I were the bad guys I would do everything I could between now and November to inflict as many casualties as I could on Americans.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And why would that be good for them?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    I think it would weaken American resolve. I think it would increase the number of Americans who say look we've done enough. And I understand their fatigue, I understand their frustration. When you see these young Americans who have sacrificed, as Mark said, it wrenches your heart.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    When you look at the electorate and okay they're going to make a decision, going back to David's point between the Democrats and the Republicans, do you think they're going to make it on that basis as to who is going to do the best job in conveying that?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    It's a little fuzzy. What I mean is, if there's, pray God there's not, some increase in a perceived failure in Iraq, just as there was a perceived failure in Vietnam, then they're going to want a new team in, from that standpoint. And in the case of John Kerry, I'm confident he would try to stay the course.

    But we know one thing, we live in a democracy, and if public opinion overwhelmingly turns against any foreign enterprise, it's going to fail over time.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Senator.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Yes, one quick thing.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Just one thing. You said, Senator, we are not Democrats, we are not Republicans, we're not liberals or conservatives. What happened to change that? Couldn't you say that the war with Iraq and the no weapons of mass destruction, that upon which it was based, I mean, certainly contributed to the erosion of that sense of unity?

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    I think it probably did, and that's serving on this commission and the investigation of weapons of mass destruction. But the fundamental point remains that the guy used the weapons before, if he were in power today I believe he would be trying to acquire them, and every intelligence agency in the world, including the French, who are not exactly our dearest and closest friends, thought the same thing.

    So there's people out there who are saying hey there was this conspiracy by the Bush people to convince the American people. Every intelligence agency in the world believed that he had these weapons, now we got to find out why because if there is another group out there who might acquire a weapon, we better have the right intelligence because we have to act preemptively.

    Everybody says, oh no, you can't. Well, if they got a weapon and a missile to put it on, what other choice do we have? That requires us to have better intelligence. That's why the 9/11 Commission recommendations and the things we're going to be doing in September are important. I'm sorry for the long answer.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    No, no. Senator, thank you very much.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Thank you for having me.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Best to you.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Great, thanks.