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.
Does this change your view about the U.S. relationship with China?
Let me put a little bit of historical perspective on this. I think all of us had kind of a romanticized view of the world after the fall of the then Soviet Union. And there was a period of time when we saw dramatic progress in the world toward countries attaining democracy, and many assumed that it was almost automatic that China and Russia would be inexorably on a path toward democratic and free societies. The Chinese reacted to Tiananmen Square, as we all know, in a way that made them more restrictive. The perceived chaos in Russia and their diminished stature in the world made people like Vladimir Putin and others eager to reassert what they have viewed for centuries as the Russian position in the world.
So, in other words, great economic progress did not mean the diminishment of autocracies. I still believe that history will show that democracy and freedom go hand in hand with economic development, sophistication, and the technologies that enable the free flow of information. I think we all are realizing that progress is not going to be as rapid as we may have thought it was going to be in the halcyon days of the 1990s.
Given those complications, there certainly are a lot of folks saying that the U.S. stance has to be more nuanced.
I think we can be very clear and very direct but also think that we obviously have a compelling requirement to work with nations that share our values and our principles. America is not going it alone, and we can't, and we shouldn't.
How do your years as a military man and a former POW translate into helping you to either see more clearly or digest what's going on in the world?
Obviously, I think that having had military experience is a good thing. I don't know anybody who would disagree with that. Perhaps more importantly, I've been involved in every conflict since the Cuban missile crisis, when I sat in the cockpit of an airplane on the deck of the USS Enterprise. Perhaps far more importantly than that, in the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, this latest situation—I've been heavily involved in all of these conflicts and had a role in the decision-making process.
I've been involved in literally every national-security challenge and issue before this nation for the last 20-some years. And I think my role on the Armed Services Committee and my national security, not military, experience and background gives me the judgment necessary to lead in these difficult times.
What is it that you as the next president could do to improve the economy and give people a sense that things will get better?
The first thing you can do overall that's most important—because 80-some percent of the American people think the country is on the wrong track—is restore trust and confidence that the government will work for them. People are outraged that the Congress went on a five-week vacation and we haven't addressed the energy crisis. They want some hope. They want some confidence that someone who's there will put their country first. I know how to work with the Democrats to put my country first. Now, that has made some in my party angry. I know that. But again, it has to be done in a bipartisan fashion. You can't sit still saying, "Here's my agenda, like it or not."
Should there be more study commissions followed by negotiation?
I don't know exactly. The problem that happened in 2005 is that we got sidetracked on the private savings accounts. It never should have been a major issue. I personally favor them, but is that the solution to the fate of Social Security? I don't think so.
Is there a bipartisan solution for healthcare?
I kind of think that success breeds success, which makes me lean toward saying [focus first on] Social Security, and the healthcare [issue] is a little bit longer term. But I'm also keenly aware that most presidencies, it's the first couple of years before you all of a sudden get into the next cycle. You've really got to get a lot done.
We hear from lots of people who say, "When is McCain going to be McCain—the independent-minded thinking, the maverick views?"
I do the town hall meetings. People stand up, they ask questions, I give them follow-up questions. Those are very much the same as the year 2000. And the questions may be different, but my answers are candid and I think at least elicit a response. You may not agree, but they appreciate the fact that we had the dialogue.
The strategy of our opposition, as I understand it, is to say it's not the same McCain, that it's a different one, that it's Bush's third term and all that. I understand that. Then you ask, OK, what specifically are my differences on? "Well, you're just not the same guy." In what way? So, I reject it.
I'm pleased where we are in the polls, surprisingly. We're the underdog and we're behind, but I'm pleased at how close it is. When September rolls around and we're really into the campaign, people pay closer attention, and I think they will be looking at me more closely.