Up close, John McCain seems almost diminutive, certainly more slender and physically fit than he appears on TV. He is 5-foot-7, weighs 163 pounds, and is in good health for a septuagenar-ian, according to his latest medical report. On a bright morning in mid-August, the polls showed the Republican presidential candidate locked in a tight race with Democrat Barack Obama, and McCain was getting positive media attention for his strong reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia.
In a half-hour interview aboard his campaign plane en route from Michigan to Colorado, McCain gave a tour d'horizon of America's challenges at home and abroad. Excerpts:
How do your national-security credentials qualify you to be commander in chief?
Well, I think it's very clear that the overriding issue is the economy. Americans are hurting very badly, and we are in extremely challenging and difficult times. But I also think that national security is an underlying issue because we have just found out in the last few days that we live in a very dangerous world. And there are situations which can arise which are not readily foreseen, certainly not by average citizens who are going about their daily lives, that in my view require experience, knowledge, and judgment.
People can't stay in their homes, suddenly have lost their jobs, can't afford the health insurance, and that's the overriding issue of concern. And then we see a tiny country [become a] victim of Russian aggression, and over time they will tie that to part of our economic problem here in America and that's the world's energy supply, which is part of this whole situation in Georgia as it is evolving today, unfortunately.
Has the Russian invasion of Georgia changed your thinking on the energy question?
No, nor on Russia, nor on the importance of energy independence. That's been our message. I comment at every town hall meeting that we are sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't like us and that some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations.
How much of a benchmark is this in our relationship with Russia?
It's huge. I think it has implications not only for this tiny independent country [Georgia] but for the region, Ukraine, the Baltics. I don't think it's an accident that those five presidents came to Tbilisi to be each other's solidarity with [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili, because they know that they are in the "near abroad" of Russia, and they have also been under the heel of Russian domination.
You say this hasn't changed your view of Russia. Does that imply that you would have anticipated something like this to happen?
Well, I've talked about it for a long time: They've murdered people in London. They've used oil as a weapon, most recently against the Czech Republic. They have threatened Georgia on several occasions. They brutally repressed Chechnya. There's been a series of measures taken by [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin since he came to power that indicated what Russian ambitions are, what Putin's ambitions are, and that is the restoration of the old Russian empire, and that means the "near abroad," where surrounding countries are either vassals or clients.
By the way, let me quickly add one point: I don't think we're going to reignite the Cold War. I don't think there's going to be a nuclear confrontation with Russia. I don't think there's going to be a Cuban missile crisis. I do think that there's going to be a dramatically different relationship unless the Russians change their behavior.
Are you satisfied with President Bush's response?
I'm pleased at the remarks that he made and the statements that he made, and the policies.
What is your view of how important personal diplomacy is in a president's dealings with other leaders?
We should always try to maintain relations and communications with every country in the world and every major leader. But you never confuse national interests with personal relationships. I certainly would maintain communications with them constantly, but personal relationships have very little to do with national interests.