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The Choice 2008
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Graham, South Carolina's senior senator, has traveled with McCain on the campaign trail and has been in "many scrapes" with the Arizona senator on such controversial issues as detainee policy, campaign finance, immigration and the war in Iraq. The two were part of the "Gang of 14," which negotiated a bipartisan compromise to avert the filibuster of judicial nominees. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted May 15, 2008.

“In 2000, John was the leader of a movement. ... He learned from that experience that if you want to be the Republican nominee, you need to be the leader of a party.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham

[What happened that brought Sen. John McCain, who was sort of on the outside of the Republican Party, to speak at the 2004 Republican convention?]

John's always been a Republican. ... He was frustrated with his party. He's frustrated with some of the things that we're doing as a party, but it was a very easy decision for him to support President Bush over [former Vice President] Al Gore. It was a very easy decision for him to support President Bush over [Sen.] John Kerry [D-Mass.].

The difference between 2008 and 2000 is that in 2000, John was the leader of a movement, breaking the iron triangle. I think he learned from that experience that if you want to be the Republican nominee, you need to be the leader of a party. ...

What do you mean by "iron triangle"?

Oh, the lobbyists, the special interests that come up to Washington. If you remember, he was Luke Skywalker in the 2000 campaign. We were sort of leading a movement, and Bush was trying to lead a party. And I think we learned from that experience that John is conservative socially and economically conservative, has always been independent, and he goes the road less traveled at times, and he gets defined by that.

So it's no surprise to me that in 2004, he's speaking at the convention on behalf of President Bush simply because that's who John is. He is a loyal Republican who understands that the Republican Party needs to change. If you really love something or somebody, you have to talk about the faults as well as the assets. And in my business, [the] hardest thing in the world is to disagree with your friends. It's easy to disagree with your political foes.

[What happened to him in the 2000 South Carolina primary?]

It was a series of attacks, personal and distorted -- personal life distorted, political record. It all went back to, I think, campaign finance reform. A lot of the groups that attacked John were not coordinated by President Bush. I never believed that for a moment. They were people who make money off of politics, and John was the Antichrist. He dared to take on the political establishment by regulating how you raise money and how you spend money, so they all came down on his head. He was a threat to the status quo.

And what we faced in South Carolina was a barrage of attacks from disturbed people at an individual level saying some awful things to sort of an unorganized effort of groups that really did feel that John was a threat to [their] ability to raise money and make a living off of politics. ...

How did he react to that?

Well, I tell you what, it was terrible. I mean, I was there. What they were saying about [his wife] Cindy -- it was some guy who was trying to make a point about drug abuse, and [he] did it in a very inartful, mean way. Some things [were] said about John's family. It's a real smear campaign. It hurt. And we tried to stay above it, but it hurt. I can't tell you what it's like to have up become down -- and if you've got enough money in politics, up can become down. So the South Carolina primary was tough.

President Bush, in many ways, was the better candidate. That gets lost. He had an establishment, a presence in South Carolina that really mattered. So the loss in South Carolina is not attributable to just the negative politicking alone. There were some fundamental structural problems we had. ...

Sen. McCain blamed George Bush, independent of what you think about what happened. I mean, his anger was palpable on the Larry King show that one night where he looked at him and said, you know, "Apologize."

Yeah. I mean, it was very tough. We made a mistake by running an ad comparing President Bush to President Clinton, you know? That was one of our mistakes. But at the end of the day, South Carolina we learned from.

Here's what we learned: We're not going to take any crap. We had a truth squad. This time around, we were ready, and the national media was ready. They were ready for anybody who did this stuff, and they were going to call their hand. ...

There's also the Confederate flag moment that he's talked about subsequently. ... [What happened there?]

The big issue in South Carolina during that period of time is the Legislature was debating whether or not to remove the Confederate flag from the top of the Capitol. ...

John, like every other candidate, basically said, "This is a state issue," and I think he felt that he should have done something different and done more.

What did he say he should have done?

Said that he supported removing it.

Because he believed that.

Yeah, I think that's where he was most comfortable. John voting against Martin Luther King Day in Arizona -- I don't know if you remember that or not, but all these things are very emotional. And when you're new to politics or when you're trying to do something big -- you know, John's focus is not on the Confederate flag on the Capitol; [it's] on turning the country around, trying to bring a new agenda, a new way of doing business in Washington. And sometimes these big hopes and dreams can be pulled down by the smallest of things, things ... that don't capture your imagination. And you just have to learn to deal with that.

He's one of those guys that believes stuff ... almost in a way that feels like it's unique in politics.

That's a good point. Who is John, and what makes him tick? ... I think John, as he grew up in a military environment, as he became a military officer, as he became a commander, as he was in prison with other POWs, he had a sense of duty and responsibility that is unique to that environment. And it's carried over to politics.

What makes him tick in terms of taking political stands is a sense of responsibility. ... The detainee debate was one of his finer moments, I thought, because the people that were talking about, some of them for sure would kill us all if they could. And I think John's point was, it's not about them, it's about us; that when we capture them, the attention is focused on us. And this is an ideological war. ... You're going to win it by showcasing values, and the values that we have to offer the world is a system that does not cut your head off, a system based on evidence gathering, based on the ability of the accused to confront their accuser, the ability to render verdicts not based on prejudice or bigotry, but based on law. ...

And he knows. I mean, he's lived this. He's been a military officer. He's been a prisoner of war. He knows where this ends, that if we start cutting legal corners and we start engaging in interrogation techniques that align us more with our enemy and less with who we want to be, that it catches up to us in the end.

And that's what I like most about John, the ability to look over the horizon. ... In 2006, we lost the election, the House and the Senate. Everybody was running for the exit signs. There were a series of proposals by Republicans to put timetables on our presence in Iraq and to begin to withdraw, because the conventional wisdom was the Republicans lost in 2006 because of the war.

Well, John, for about four years, saw the war in a different fashion. He really does mean it when he says, "I'd rather lose an election than a war," because he understands what follows. If Iraq goes badly, if Iraq disintegrates into three different countries, the whole region is drawn into the problems of Iraq in a way that makes it much more difficult to deal with, and we're a lot less safe.

Despite the fact that his campaign staff, his closest advisers said, in the summer of '07, "Walk back from this."

Oh, yeah. I was in the room, yeah.

What did they say? What happened?

"Let it go. Talk about something else. Knock it off." The "No Surrender" tour was a hell of a fight.

Tell me about it.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to ... read a poll. ... Bottom line was, John had been to Iraq enough to know that the model we had in place was not going to work. He had said so openly. ... He said it at his political detriment. At a time you want to be the Republican nominee for president, it is not in your self-interest to criticize the way you treat terrorists. It is not in your self-interest to be talking about a war that 65 percent of the people don't want to hear any more about.

So why is he doing it?

Because he thought it was clearly in the best interest of the country. ... What do military officers do? They perform in the best interest of the country. They're driven by what is in the best interest of those under their command, what is in the best interest of us as a nation.

When you guys are fighting the torture stuff, and the McCain amendment prevails --

Yeah, we're getting the hell beat out of us on talk radio.

But here you've got the president of the United States who signs off, shakes the senator's hand. ... But then the signing statements are signed. [What does McCain think about that?]

... Well, the signing statement is an academic debate about the president. Clinton has signing statements.

But no, it bothered John. It bothered John, bothered me. I don't accept their theory of executive power. The Bush administration has pushed a theory of executive power that is unique in the law and dangerous in my opinion, that ... the Congress and the courts really have no role when you're at war. Well, I don't believe that at all, and it's never been so in any other war. So we've been fighting that.

And this whole detainee issue was driven by John's personal knowledge as a military officer, as a former POW. What are the long-term consequences of going down this road? What does it mean to the nation to try to get around the Geneva Convention? What does it mean to this nation not to comply with the convention against torture?

... Does he go to war? Does he say to the president of the United States, "How dare you do this thing to us"?

He is always respectful of the president. But I was in every meeting and made hundreds of phone calls, trying to negotiate. John believes we're at war, number one. But being at war doesn't mean you're no longer an American. ... We take our values with us when we go to war. The way you handle a prisoner is governed by the law of armed conflict. We have in our UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] a prohibition against detainee abuse. We have signed up with the convention against torture. Ronald Reagan signed that treaty. We have been the leading advocate for the Geneva Convention for 60 years. From a military man's point of view, from a military lawyer's point of view, these things are sacrosanct.

And when people in the Bush administration tried to get around these things, have absurd interpretations of the law, we saw where that would go. It would confuse the troops. It would put an environment in place that would allow things to happen that would eventually harm us. And lo and behold, it did.

And all I can tell you is that I'm proud of what John did with [the] Detainee Treatment Act. I'm proud of the Military Commissions Act. I believe they should be tried in the military legal system, and they should be tried fairly. And we should showcase the world who we are versus our enemy. I don't believe they're common criminals. I don't want to criminalize what I think is a war. So we found a middle ground. We are at war, but we're going to follow the law of armed conflict, not domestic criminal law.

And as far as John goes, what does he do, and why does he do it? Why does he get involved in these fights? It's because he understands the issue in a personal way. He understands, he's convinced that global climate change is real. He's gone all over the world, he's listened to the scientists, he's eyeballed the change in the Arctic, and he's come to the conclusion that CO2 admissions [sic] are harming the planet. And nobody is going to stop him because of a political argument.

One last thought: The worst thing you can do for John McCain to persuade him is to give him an emotional, political argument. Trust me. If you've got a good reason, if you've got a sound reason to object to where he's going, he will listen. But if all you've got to offer is a poll and emotional rhetoric, you're in trouble.

Do you know it when you're in trouble?

I have seen people get in trouble.

[What happened to his campaign in the spring of 2007? Are you in there raising any questions at the time?]

No, no. I was part of the problem. The heir-apparent [strategy] didn't work. The whole campaign was, you know, "We paid our dues; we've helped President Bush in 2000, 2004; we've got something to offer to the party that's unique, the party needs."

I think John, for the party and the nation, fits in '08 like Reagan did in '80. The party needed somebody who could appeal to a wider base, the Reagan Democrats. I think John has the ability to sort of create a new coalition that would be good for the party and the country.

But we started this campaign being the pre-emptive favorite, right? We had a budget that was based on being the pre-emptive favorite. We assumed things that did not happen. We hit a wall. We hit a wall.

And when the wheels came off, how hard was the news?

In a weird way, that's when he's at his best, I guess. It was tough. What was hard is that the people around him, in charge of the campaign, were very dear friends. John was upset that the money had been spent in sort of a haphazard way, and we had nothing. We spent $35 million and didn't get a T-shirt. We didn't run one ad. It was a campaign that was based on some assumptions that didn't bear fruit.

And the hardest thing I think John had to do, quite frankly, is to reorganize, go to some old friends and allies and put new people in place, restructure. That was really hard.

Hard to move [former chief strategist] John Weaver out.

Yeah. John Weaver's been a dear friend and still is. And Cindy McCain got involved.

If you ask me, the big moment for John was when we went to Baghdad, July 4, 2007. The Straight Talk Express had hit a wall -- I mean, completely blown up. His obituary was being written every day in about 10 different ways. Every talk show, every newspaper had written John off. We were fifth in a four-person race. You know, had 'em right where we want 'em, right?...

So we go to Baghdad at the request of Gen. [David] Petraeus. There was a re-enlistment ceremony in Gen. Petraeus' headquarters in one of the old Saddam palaces. Six hundred eighty-eight people re-enlisted in theater. They could have come home, but they wanted to stay another tour and fight.

John spoke to them, and it was one of the most eloquent, moving speeches I've ever heard, not a dry eye in the house. One hundred and thirty people became American citizens, green-card holders in the military that received their citizenship that day. Two of them got killed the week before, so only 128 made it. John spoke to them. And it must have been 2,000 people there witnessing this ceremony.

We went and did a ceremony with citizenship folks, gave them their citizenship papers. That took probably 45 minutes, an hour, and nobody left. We came back into the main ballroom there, and people were still there. He stayed there for hours having his photo made. And coming back, he said: "You know, we can't quit. These guys, ... they're not going to quit. I'm not going to quit."

He came back home, he got everybody in a room and said: "Here's the deal. Get a million dollars. We're going to run this campaign on a million dollars. If I have to take a cab, I'm going to take a cab. If I have to fly coach, we're going to fly coach." ... And we just really got committed.

Let me tell you, I have never seen and experienced anything like going to Baghdad. The surge was working. Two things happened there: He had an emotional attachment to those in uniform, and saw what they were doing for the country and that brought out what I was trying to tell you before, a sense of duty. You know, "I have a duty to offer myself to the country, because I think I can help. I think I have something the country needs."

And this is when the campaign is saying to him, "Walk away from this war."

That's when we came back and did the "No Surrender" tour. That's when he came back in the room and said, … "As to the war, we're going to commit ourselves to winning this thing like the troops have." And it was not a discussion.

You said Cindy got involved. How?

She helped. She's a good businessperson. She went over the books and helped us get back on track. She's a very good businessperson.

You never hear that about her, do you?

She's a very private person. She's a unique lady. She's a real quality person. She's been very successful in her own right, and she had a big influence here. She watches the money.

You know, [campaign manager] Rick Davis has done a wonderful job of reorganizing this campaign. But after we came back from Baghdad, there was a commitment on John's part in two ways: We're going to reorganize this campaign. We're going to be lean and we're going to be mean about what we do. We're going to go and challenge our opponents. He thought he had the best credentials to be commander in chief. He could take the party in a new direction. And I believe that. I thought he could beat anybody we were running against if we could get back on our feet. ...

Let's talk a little bit about the practical politics of winning. You choose New Hampshire, skipping Iowa. In Iowa, you're watching [former Mass. Gov. Mitt] Romney, [former Ark. Gov. Mike] Huckabee, [former Tenn. Sen. Fred] Thompson.

... We needed a break, to be honest with you. We came up with a game plan to restructure the campaign. We had a central issue that defined John, and it was Iraq. But if someone had broken away in August or September, if one of the other candidates had broken away, we couldn't have stopped them. We didn't have any money.

So we were lucky in the sense that no candidate caught on fire, that there was not a coalescing around a single candidate. The primary field kind of stayed in place. John lost the front-runner status, but nobody assumed it in a way that could be sustainable. So we needed a break. And we got a break in Iowa.

What was the break?

... Romney lost, and that put him behind the eight ball coming into New Hampshire. ...

Did you think you could take Romney?

Romney had a lot of money. He's a good candidate, but he couldn't close the deal. ...

In New Hampshire, we did what we had to do. There was no scenario upon which John could become the Republican nominee without winning New Hampshire. We didn't have to win Iowa, but we had to win New Hampshire. And Romney performed below expectations. Huckabee could not translate the Iowa win to New Hampshire because it's a different electorate. So in that regard, we were fortunate. ...

John, I don't know how many town halls -- I think people ran away from him. "I've seen you 12 times." I think he's met every man, woman and child in New Hampshire, and he loves it. He campaigned his butt off.

... What did Romney do wrong?

... I think a dynamic happened in Iowa. It's hard to run against a Baptist preacher in the Republican primary. [Huckabee] was really good. He was a great speaker, and he talked the language of evangelical conservatives, of conservative people. Certainly a wonderful speaker and a good man. I think everybody underestimated him. And the coalition he put together in Iowa was pretty impressive.

So that was Romney's moment. He had to right the ship. Huckabee couldn't translate to New Hampshire because [it's] a different demographic, a different electorate. So it allowed John to talk more about electability. John's, I think, appeal was [as the] reliable conservative who could win in the fall, somebody who's reliably conservative, who is the best commander-in-chief candidate, who could win in the fall. ...

[Before the campaign imploded, back when he was riding around on the plush bus, it almost seemed like he had walked away from that straight-talking style.]

He was trying not to lose. It's like a sports team. … You don't want to lose. You don't play as well as you do when you just want to win. And you may win. You may not. But you know you want to.

He was a different candidate, almost free. … We went to some VFW somewhere, in some state I can't even remember. Twelve guys showed up. The average age was 90. They were all World War II guys. And they couldn't hear a word he was saying hardly. I'm sitting there and I'm beginning to laugh, because these are wonderful old guys. "What'd he say?" But they got bits and pieces. And they stood up or tried to stand up at the appropriate times and cheer. I said, "John, here's the good news, buddy. We're killin' 'em with the over-90 crowd." But it built over time. …

So you roll on into South Carolina.

Big test, OK? You could write New Hampshire off as just a different place that likes John McCain. He's the king of New Hampshire. ... But to become the front-runner, the legitimate nominee aspirant, you had to win in a red state. You had to win where I live. And don't ever run against a Baptist preacher in South Carolina unless you have to. ...

We win because of the commander-in-chief issue, I think. What we're able to do is to go to my state and say, "We're at war." People ask me, "What can I do to help the troops?" Make sure they have a commander in chief who is well-qualified to lead them in a time of war, who understands their language, who's walked in their shoes and will allow them to win a war they want to win and we can't afford to lose. Who is that person? John McCain.

We were able to put together a coalition of evangelical Christians who feel very threatened by the enemy we face -- everybody of faith should be threatened by the enemy we face -- who saw John fight for [Chief Justice John] Roberts and [Justice Samuel] Alito, who knew that he was conservative. He was able eight years later to right the wrong of the South Carolina 2000 primary, over time convince people that he was a social, economic conservative, but not 100 percent with them -- but with them enough that they felt comfortable with him. And on the signature issue of our campaign, winning this war, he was best qualified.

His politics, more centrist politics, fit the coast of South Carolina, where you get a lot of new people coming in from other parts of the country. John won the coast. The upstate where I live, sort of the Bible Belt of South Carolina, Huckabee was a very attractive candidate. But we were able to convince people -- and we almost won Greenville and Spartanburg, which is a real conservative area of South Carolina; lost by very small margins -- that John was the most electable conservative in the fall. ...

Let's talk a little bit about Barack Obama, your earliest impressions of him.

Very articulate fellow, nice. I mean, I haven't interacted with him that much. What I know about him -- very genuinely nice person, obviously smart, you know? He's very accomplished. ... I can only tell you about my experience with him, and it was on immigration.

Now, let me tell you, that's tough politics. That's tough politics for Democrats. That's tough politics ... particularly for Republicans. So the immigration comprehensive bill was a big moment a couple years ago.

That's where [Sens.] Ted Kennedy [D-Mass.], Lindsey Graham, Jon Kyl [R-Ariz.] and Ken Salazar [D-Colo.], along with Secretary [of Commerce Carlos] Gutierrez and [Secretary of Homeland Security Michael] Chertoff sit in a room for about three months going over every line of a bill, giving and taking like you thought the ninth-grade civics class would be. It was a bill where the senators actually get involved. We probably had 30, 40 senators coming in and out of those meetings.

Sen. Obama was one of those senators. He'd come in at times and make a contribution. We were at the very last part of the negotiations. He shows up. He's not a regular participant, but he shows up at the end, and he's got three things he wants or two things he wants. Jon Kyl didn't want to give it to him; I did. It was some change; I can't remember what it was. But I wanted him in, because I know he's somebody that people pay attention to. We needed every vote we could get, and we needed all the people we could to push this ball, because immigration's tough. The left hated the bill because of the labor unions. Labor unions hated the temporary worker program. They didn't want a temporary worker program to allow outside people to come in and work. The right didn't like the path to citizenship, the ability of allowing people to come out of the shadows and have a legal status. ...

So we get on the floor. You get some people doing the union bidding, trying to undo the temporary worker program. They reduce the numbers in half, but we could live with it, fix it in conference. So Sen. Obama started voting in a way to undercut the temporary worker program. I went to him at least once and said: "We can't do this. This will destroy the deal." ...

Finally it all blew up. Not only had he started voting the wrong way to undo the deal, he offered an amendment himself that would have sunsetted the temporary worker program after five years. What do you go tell the people on your side, the businesspeople who need access to labor, "Your program goes away after five years"? ...

That just made me very, very mad. ... I thought instead of sticking to the deal, he gave in to pressure from the left, and the pressure from the left and right was enormous. So that did not sit well with me.

Did you talk to him about it?

Oh, yeah. It's there for the world to see. I didn't talk to him until I got up and spoke against his amendment. I maybe went a little overboard, but it was a genuine reaction. I thought that Sen. Obama undercut the deal that he wanted to be part of. He was in the photo op. That's great. We were all, you know, in this great bipartisanship, big photo op. The photo of me and Ted Kennedy is all over South Carolina. I told Ted, "I'll never be in another photo with you as long as I live," and we laugh about that. But at the end of the day, this was tough, and I thought Sen. Obama did not live up to the spirit of what we were trying to do. And that's my experience with him. ...

Inexperience? Naivete?

I think what it is, that's probably the first time in a genuine way that he's ever had pushback from those that have been his support network and that he's relied upon and that he knows he needs to go to the next level. I have been there. It's scary. The first time my name was mentioned on Rush Limbaugh in a negative way, my office freaked out. ... I think it was an overwhelming experience for him.

The one thing I've learned from being John McCain's friend, you can survive that dynamic if you're really committed to what you believe in and don't sell people short. I have been in so many scrapes with John, whether it be detainee policy, campaign finance reform, the Gang of 14 or immigration and the war. What allowed John to go from all of those issues to being the nominee [is] just a sense of purpose and a belief in your position, and a core belief [that] this is the best for the country. And those beliefs are tested the most when you argue with your friends. The easiest thing in politics is to beat on your political foes, because there's a reward from your base. The hardest thing -- ask [Sen.] Joe Lieberman [I-Conn.] -- in politics is to tell that base of yours for many years, "I can't help you here." ...

[What happened when The New York Times story came out alleging an inappropriate relationship between McCain and a female lobbyist?]

... People are going to come after John, to attack John McCain the man, because on the issues, I think John is closer to the American people than [Sen. Hillary] Clinton or Obama. In terms of bringing people together and changing Washington, he has done it more than Clinton and Obama. So what do you have to do as a Democrat? I think you have to take John McCain down as a person: He's the third George Bush. Good luck with that. But this personal stuff, I guess that's just the hand he's dealt.

When he decides to come with both feet on the chest of The New York Times, pretty characteristic of him?

It wasn't surprising to me that he fought back, yeah. He fought back for himself and his family, yeah.

Would that have been his idea?

I don't think you could have probably stopped him.

What does that mean?

Means that he ain't going to take any more crap. I mean, we've been down that road before.

And the impact of it seems to have been that some of the conservative base that may or may not have been on his side is suddenly very on his side?

We live in a world that, if people I don't like say bad things about you, you must be OK. That's not a good way to evaluate people. ...

[What happened when McCain spoke to CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference)?]

Well, 99 percent of the people there were very respectful and received John well. John wanted to make the case that: "Here's who I am on judges. Here's who I am on taxes. I believe in limited government. Here's why I fight earmarking. Earmarking is a corruption of government. Earmarking is a politician taking money for their self-interest against the greater good. It takes money away from competitive bidding. It takes money away from the common good and for [the benefit of] a select few. We need to reform that practice. As a Republican, I am ashamed of the way we've spent your money." That was well received. ...

I'm not worried about the conservative base coming to John's aid. I'm not worried about the liberal base coming to Sen. Obama's aid. They will. The election will be decided by that growing middle. It won't be a turnout election this year. [The] Karl Rove model is not going to work this time. It's not going to be about, get one more of my guys out, one more of my person[s] out than yours. It's going to be about a group of people who are slowly but surely over time walking away from the hard edges of party politics. And they're going to evaluate this November not on ideological grounds, [but on] leadership, character and vision. ...

Did you feel this political shift? When did you feel it?

Saw it coming a long time ago. You don't have to be a rocket scientist. Look what happened in Mississippi. ... The country is being run based on a political dynamic of "I suck less than the other guy." That gets old after a while. The problems of our nation go unattended. And we get up here in one room at the Capitol, and they'll get in the other room at the Capitol, and we'll try to find 10 sound bites that make the other side look bad. That is wearing thin.

And what John has done for a very long period of time [is he's] engaged the other side on an issue that matters to all of us and solve[d] that problem. His ship has come in. This is his time. ...

You were there when McCain confused Sunni and Shi'a. What happened?

He was talking about Al Qaeda before he talked about Iran. And if you don't know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi'a, you wouldn't call for the surge. ...

So he just mixed it up?

Yeah. I mean, I'm standing right there by him. I've done it a thousand times. I say Iran when I mean Iraq. I've done it a thousand times.

Was he angry that it gets picked up?

I think it's a new world to him. I don't think he's ever been under the scrutiny like he is now. So it's just a new world where people play gotcha all the time. I'm sure they do it with Sen. Obama. ...

The anger issue, the popping-off-at-people, setting-his-hair-on-fire moments -- talk to me about it.

I've seen John get angry, and I've always understood there was a reason for it at the time. John has apologized to people for things he said. But I've never known a more together guy. When it's really tough, when your back's against the wall, that's when he's at his best. ... That's when John gets the quietest. That's when he listens the closest. … I think that's when his best judgment is utilized.

But these guys like [Sen.] Thad Cochran [R-Miss.] and others who come forward and say, "Jeez, this guy scares me so," what do you say?

Thad would be one of his biggest supporters. Just politics. He was helping Romney. One of the knocks on John is he's got a bad temper. Listen, he's 71 years old. The people in prison with him follow him around like the Pied Piper saying: "I was in jail with the guy. You'll have no better friend. He nursed me back to health. I nursed him back to health. I would die for John McCain." His staff has been with him probably the longest of anybody on Capitol Hill. The people that work for John love the guy. He calls me the worst names you can imagine, and that means he likes me.

So obviously I'm not neutral on this. I like the guy. He's a dear friend. He is flawed. He has got problems like everybody else. He loves the country. He has got a temperament that I like, and that is, he doesn't suffer fools lightly. He loves the country. He'll stand up for what he believes, but he also has the ability to go to people and say, "I'm sorry."

For a long time, McCain had this policy ... not to get involved in countries, not to nation-build. What was different about Iraq?

I think John, as much as he loved Ronald Reagan, thought that 200-and-something Marines off the end of the runway in Beirut was not a good model because they're exposed. You don't put your troops in that position. Somalia? You're depending upon forces outside your own. You're in a very bad environment. You don't have the military footprint to make a difference. So I think John's belief is that you do not put military force into a country that can't sustain itself and can't make a difference.

He was right about Beirut. We wound up leaving. He was right about Somalia. He agreed with President Bush to go into Bosnia, but we didn't just go into Bosnia with 200-something people. We went in with a massive force. So I think he and [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell agree with this idea. If you break it, you own it. Go in to have the forces to affect an outcome.

I'll never forget this as long as I live, we're in Iraq, right after the fall of Baghdad. The first trip, pretty normal, feeling pretty good about it. But the next couple of trips, a deteriorating situation. Obviously things are going wrong. And no matter what you tell us, John knows military strategy. He understands war, and he understands the application of military force. Nobody was convincing him this was going well.

The sergeants and the colonels and the captains were saying, "Sir, we don't have enough force." John told [Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul] Bremer, "You've got to start shooting these looters." I said, "Whoa." He says, "You've got to shoot these looters, because if it gets out of hand and the rule of law breaks down" -- there was no rule of law. If people don't have security and confidence in the force, then you're going to lose the respect of the people.

Fast-forward: We're at a prison camp in Iraq. A senior Al Qaeda leader flips, comes on our side. We get to meet him. Young guy, but a very big guy in Al Qaeda who jumps sides. ... We asked him, "How did you flourish?" "The lack of security. The country got out of control. We offered security. We were able to go in uncontested and have our way. We were shocked in Abu Ghraib. Great recruiting tool." And I think that validated John's view about Abu Ghraib as how bad it would hurt us in the war, and it also convinced him of his basic premise, that you go into countries like Iraq with enough force to affect the outcome. And we never had that force, and nobody was going to convince him otherwise.

And some neocons, to your question, don't believe in this nation-building stuff. Well, to me, it's not nation building as much as providing security in a transition period to allow the nation to reconstruct itself. You cannot have political compromise where the political players are getting murdered and kidnapped. You cannot have the rule of law where the judge can't go to the courtroom and come back home without fear.

Do you sense this struggle for him, for the heart of John McCain, [between the so-called neocons and realists]?

No. John listens to people on foreign policy, but he knows what he's doing. He doesn't sit around with a group of 10 people who are wise experts to tell him what to do. He pretty much knows what he needs to do. That's what I think makes him a unique commander in chief. He has so much experience in these areas, and he's been right over time. ...

In 2001, after the South Carolina moment, after the primary, the way the word goes is, McCain is bereft and angry. [He supposedly flirts with the Democrats about joining their caucus.]

I have probably been one of his closest friends anyway for a decade now. He has never said one word to me about leaving the party. I wasn't in the room where all this happened. I can only tell you what I know. ... I've heard him say many times: "Our party's screwed up. We need to change it." That's all I can tell you. I've never heard from his mouth or anybody around him about some plan to leave the Republican Party. I know what he did in 2000. He went all over the country with President Bush. I think he made a difference to make sure President Bush would be president.

But kind of reluctantly with Bush, right? You see those pictures.

I think initially it was hard to heal the wounds. But by October, November, it was easy. Al Gore made it easy.

The idea that he didn't vote for Bush -- somebody said he said this at a dinner party or something. Did he vote for Bush? Do you know?

He said he voted for Bush, and I believe him. All you've got to do is look at what the guy did. I mean, he didn't leave the party. Ask President Bush whether or not John McCain helped in 2004.

What I can't get over is that nobody is in more demand in 2002 to come into their districts on the congressional side and help them with their re-election than John McCain. He's really in demand in these swing states. And in the 2008 primary -- 2004 he does it, 2006 -- where were these guys?

But in 2001, 2002 and 2003, ... he is voting against the tax cuts. He is, you know, a kind of thorn in their side. There is something about him that says: "Wait a minute. I'm not just a true believer. I'm not an acolyte here. I am my own guy."

Right. Well, what did he do on taxes in 2001? He said, "Let's have a robust tax cut" -- and it was a very large tax cut -- "but let's also have spending controls." I would argue that the reason we lost in 2006 is not so much about Iraq. It's because from 2000 to 2006, we spent money like a drunken sailor, to paraphrase John, and that if we had followed his logic of cutting taxes and controlling spending, we would not have lost in 2006.

Where does John McCain fit in this evolution of the Republican Party, from [late Sen. Barry] Goldwater [R-Ariz.] to Reagan to Bush? And how does he separate himself from the president if he needs to, considering the president's popularity in 2008?

... What John has to offer to the Republican Party in 2008 is a brand of conservatism that is comfortable and nonthreatening, a brand of conservatism that rewards those who will meet the other side in the middle on issues that only can be solved by both parties working together, instead of having a brand of liberalism like, where if you stray on one issue, you're no longer welcome.

The Democratic Party has to deal with the Joe Lieberman problem. If there's no place in the Democratic Party for Joe Lieberman, it says more about the party than it does Sen. Lieberman.

I think John McCain is trying to make sure that there will always be a place in the Republican Party for people who will go down the road less traveled, who will reach across the aisle and try to solve hard problems. That to me is what he offers our party that will put us in better standing with the American people. And that's what he offers the nation, a blessing of those who will do these things, not a condemnation.

posted october 14, 2008

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