To get to the place John McCain goes "to think and to recharge my battery," you drive 90 minutes north from Phoenix on Interstate 17, past the strip malls and cookie-cutter developments, past towering saguaros, and up a county road into the hills, until you turn onto a long dirt driveway and wind your way down a treacherously steep decline into a place called Hidden Valley – a private hideaway to which he's never before invited a journalist. Many reports have McCain's cabin located in Sedona, but it isn't. Sedona, a pricey resort town famous for its craggy red rock formations and New Age spas, is the upscale sister community to Cottonwood, a more down-home, blue-collar town 15 miles away. McCain's cabin, which is actually more of a compound, sits almost precisely halfway between the two.
Here, alongside an older white two-story wood-framed house that belongs to McCain's close friends, Ollie and Sharon Harper, McCain owns two houses, plus a small guesthouse, on 25 acres. The McCains bought the first one – a spacious four-bedroom log cabin – 21 years ago, then four years ago added the second home, onto which they built a giant wooden deck for entertaining.
McCain, wearing faded blue jeans, tennis shoes, and a red sweatshirt, is on the deck barbecuing baby back ribs for his dinner guests, who include me, the Harpers, and his daughter Bridget. "The key is the fresh lemons," McCain says, in that deliberate, slightly manic tone he uses for the things he's most passionate about. He squeezes the juice of half a lemon onto the sizzling ribs. "Salt, pepper, garlic salt, fresh lemon juice – no barbecue sauce – and then you cook the ribs slowly on a low flame for an hour and a half." It's a recipe he got from his close friend Jerry Dorminy, who founded the Hog's Breath Saloon in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Sharon Harper joins us. "We've been bringing our families out here together for years," she explains to me. "Each Fourth of July, we have a softball tournament – the Patriots, the Minutemen, the Senators, and the Special Interests. Naturally, every year, who wins? The Special Interests." Everybody laughs, and I notice that McCain seems more at ease than I've ever seen him in Washington or on the campaign trail. "Maybe one day we can move that barbecue grill to the White House," Sharon says. McCain doesn't flinch. "We could barbecue in the Rose Garden," he says.
Men's Journal: Do you want to be president?
John McCain: Oh, absolutely. I think every member of the Senate wants to be president.
Why do you want to be president?
Because I think I'm qualified to help make the world a better place. I'm qualified for the job.
So what would a McCain presidency look like?
On foreign policy, it would look very much like what the president said in his inaugural address – the second one. I believe we have a unique opportunity, particularly now, to spread democracy and freedom throughout the world. Domestically, I don't want to run down a laundry list of specific issues, but one thing is to expand opportunities for national service – the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, neighborhood and community organizations. You see, I think after 9/11 we had a golden opportunity to call all Americans to serve the country – not just to tell them to take a trip and go shopping. And I think they would have responded. I think they will still respond.
Another important issue is health care. On the domestic front, often an agenda is forced on you, and I hate to be crass about this, but health care is one of the things being forced on us now – the skyrocketing costs, the inability of so many of our citizens to obtain reasonable care. The other big one is education reform. And protecting our borders.
But probably the overriding issue we face is fighting the war on terror. That's going to be with us for a long time. I mean, radical Islamic extremists will be with us for a long time.
Should you run for president, your health would be a factor. How is your health?
How is your skin cancer?
I just came from my dermatologist yesterday with a clean bill of health. I get examined every three months because once you've had a melanoma, the likelihood of another one is greatly increased. Most normal Americans have to go once a year; I go every three months. And once in a while, they find something somewhere on my body, and they cut it off.
And your prostate? You had surgery on it.
Are you too old to be president?
I think that's a question other people would have to answer. I feel fine; I feel great. I'm sure that I'm not what I was when I was 21, but I keep as heavy – or actually heavier – a schedule than I used to, because I have so many more things to do. I get up very early every morning, come home late every day.
How old would you be, if elected?
Seventy-two. That's about what Reagan was.
So will you run in 2008?
I'm going to wait a couple years to make that decision – for several reasons. One, I'd like to devote my energy to the Senate, be as good a senator as I can be. Second, I have the luxury of being able to wait because I don't have to lay any of the groundwork. I don't have to go to meet all of the state party chairmen – I've done that before. Also, I don't know what the political climate will be two years from now, and that would be a part of my calculations as well.
But is it – running for president again – something you could see yourself doing?
Oh, yeah! You know what [former Arizona congressman and secretary of the interior] Mo Udall would say: Presidential ambition is a disease that can only be cured by embalming fluid.
Funny. Would you say that applies to your friend John Kerry? Will he run in 2008?
I think it would be difficult for John, for the same reason it's hard for all candidates who don't succeed. But it's pretty obvious, the way he's acting, he'd like to try it again. I'd advise him to be the best senator he could be and put those ambitions aside for a while.
Why did Bush defeat Kerry?
Because I think we – we Republicans – were able to frame the debate appropriately as the biggest issue being the war on terror. And George Bush will win that every time. I also don't think Kerry ran a very good race. At the Republican convention, we framed the debate, framed the issues, did a good job getting the message out to the American people. And at the Democratic convention…I can't tell you anything they did besides say, "Reporting for duty."
Do you think the actions of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had an effect on the election?
Yeah, I think they did. Anything that gets that much visibility will have an effect.
Did Kerry mishandle it?
It's always tough to know how to handle an attack, but, in hindsight, 20/20, he should have responded immediately. I think that was a mistake – not responding. You can't leave charges like that unanswered. He should have just said, "Look, here are my guys, they'll tell you the truth."
What did you personally think of the attacks on Kerry?
I said when they questioned John's service in Vietnam, it was both dishonorable and dishonest.
When you were in the Hanoi Hilton, did you ever hear Kerry's words used for propaganda purposes, as some of the Swift Boat Veterans suggested?
No, no, no. Never. Remember, too, in the last couple years of the war, we were put in big rooms with other prisoners. They had stopped beating us up. Now, maybe somebody else heard something, but I never did.
Was it something you heard people talking about?
No. I never even heard John's name, and I heard many others – Ted Kennedy, George McGovern.
Did Kerry offer you his vice-president slot?
It was never officially offered, but he certainly discussed it with me on several occasions.
Really? I've never heard you say that so outright.
Were you interested?
No. Not interested from the beginning.
So why did he keep coming back?
You'll have to ask him that.
How many conversations were there?
There were, like, three chats.
Have you ever really seriously thought about leaving the Republican Party?
But what about all the stories saying that you have?
They're just not true. Where would I go?
Well, you could become a Democrat.
But my role models are Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
But Teddy Roosevelt left the Republican Party to start the Bull Moose Party. What about going third party, or independent?
No, I don't think so.
So you're happy in the Republican Party.
Yeah. I'm not happy about some of the things the party does, but I'm certainly happy in the party.
What about your party's right-wingers, like Tom DeLay and Trent Lott? You've had your differences.
First of all, since Trent Lott took a tumble [when he resigned from his post as Senate majority leader after making arguably racist comments in 2002], he and I have become not only friendly but we've worked together on some issues. He said he's never had more fun. As for DeLay, frankly, I don't know him. I've probably had five conversations with him in 20 years. Obviously, he has the reputation of being very tough. But I don't know him. And I try very hard to have disagreements with people over policy, not personality. So do I disagree with some of the things Tom DeLay has done? Yes. Do I hold a personal grudge? No.
How does the right wing in general view you?
They're more accepting of me than they used to be – not accepting, but more accepting – because of the fact that I worked hard for Bush's re-election.
How did you decide to campaign for Bush?
Easily. The transcendent issue of the campaign was, again, who was best for the war on terror. There was no doubt in my mind it was Bush.
But in the 2000 race, there was such animosity between the Bush and McCain camps, especially as a result of the South Carolina primary [during which an aggressive smear campaign by Bush supporters suggested, among other things, that McCain was the "fag candidate," that his wife was a drug addict, and that he had fathered an illegitimate black child – referring, incorrectly, to his adopted Bangladeshi daughter, Bridget]. On the night you lost that primary, you said you would never take the low road to the highest office in the land – a clear dig at Bush.
Sure, but I overcame the animosity shortly after that. I campaigned for him in 2000. Look, you can't look back in anger. The people don't expect me to have my views dictated by some anger over being mistreated in a campaign. They want me to do what's best for them and the country. So I put it behind me and I refuse to be angry. I absolutely refuse. Now, did I have disagreements with George Bush after he was president? Yes, as I did before he was president.
But how did you overcome that animosity?
Once I dropped out of the race, Cindy and I went out to Tahiti for a week. As we sat on the beach, we talked about what to do. Or, more accurately, I think that's when I got over it. See what I mean?
But the Bush-McCain animosity is so well-established that Saturday Night Live ran a cartoon showing you, campaigning for Bush, become so emotionally distraught that you transform into Martin Sheen's character in Apocalypse Now. What did you do when you saw that cartoon?
I just laughed. It was funny. Listen, I think it was the great philosopher Satchel Paige who said, "Never look back, because you don't know what's coming." Or something like that. Anyway, you've got to move forward, and you cannot let anything interfere with your mission in life, which is for the greater good. Look, this was the only practical approach. You want to serve, you want to have an influence, you want to get things done, then you have got to leave things behind. Bottom line, I got over my tendencies to indulge in self-pity when I was in prison.
Another guy who could be looking back in anger right now is Dan Rather. What do you think about what happened to him?
You know, I feel sorry for Dan, because I think he obviously made a serious mistake, but he also paid a heavy price for it. Anybody who believes he lost his job for any other reason just doesn't recognize the truth. His career was terminated.
What about Colin Powell?
He's one of the most distinguished Americans who has ever served. I think he got cross-threaded some way early on with the Bush administration, which reduced his effectiveness. I wouldn't be surprised to see him in another administration.
Do you think he'll ever run for elective office?
No. His wife is convinced that somebody would try to kill him.
Wow. Is America ready for an African-American vice president or president?
Yes. And also a woman.
Speaking of which, what about Hillary Clinton?
She's smart, and she's very experienced. And if she runs for president, I think she has a good shot at the nomination. She would be a formidable candidate, and it would be a mistake to underestimate her.
Will the memory of the Lewinsky scandal have an effect on her campaign, should she run?
No, I don't think so. You know, in some ways, Hillary Clinton arouses sympathy in people.
As for Bill Clinton, what will his legacy be?
Well, he presided over a period of American prosperity. He left us with a surplus. And, in many ways, particularly on domestic policy, he was a very effective president. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the Monica Lewinsky thing will be a stain on his record that will never be erased. And it's sad, because I have never seen a more adept, pure politician than Bill Clinton.
What will Dick Cheney's legacy be?
He will be seen as the most powerful vice president in the history of the country and a major impact on the conduct of national security policy. So, if the Bush administration is successful, he'll get great credit in history. If it fails, he'll get a much larger share of the blame than any vice president ever.
Will Iraq be an issue in the next election?
If the level of American casualties remains high three years from now, of course it will be a big issue. If things go south over there, the next election will be hard. But I am very guardedly optimistic.
On the subject of the war, you have said that you believe the elections in Iraq have changed the dynamics in the country from the insurgents versus the United States troops to the insurgents versus their own government. If that's true, what's next in Iraq?
The key is turning the military and law enforcement responsibilities over to the Iraqis, and I don't know when they are going to be capable. An exit strategy is when the Iraqis can take over those responsibilities. That's it. We've been in South Korea for 50 years. Is anybody asking for an exit strategy out of Korea? No, because we don't have casualties.
Do you see a U.S. presence in Iraq for 50 years?
In some form or another, as a military presence? Sure. Like I can see us in South Korea for another 50 years. We can be in Bosnia for another 10 to 15 years. Or Kosovo. The key to it is not the presence of American troops. The key to it is American casualties. If the casualties in Iraq stay high, then the American people, sooner or later, will abandon their support. That's why it's critical for the Iraqis to pick up their responsibilities and allow the Americans to draw back. It's going to be a long, hard pull, and there are going to be more American casualties. But again, I'm guardedly optimistic.
Let's say Bush fails in Iraq over the next couple of years. What does that mean for you?
Well, I strongly supported the president on Iraq. As hard as I could, and still do. I had strong disagreements about some of the mistakes that Rumsfeld made early on, but I still believe that we did the right thing in Iraq. So…if Iraq goes south, I'm appropriately responsible.