John McCain: The Men’s Journal Interview

Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly / Getty Images

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?
No. Never.

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.We talk more as McCain gives me a tour of the grounds. The way he walks around the land, the way he talks about it, it’s clear he feels a special connection to the place. Oak Creek runs through the property, he tells me proudly, and there are fruit orchards all around, as well as sycamores, cottonwoods, and a fully stocked man-made pond.

At a bend in the creek, McCain has built a gazebo, where he often comes to relax and think, and here we stop. He points out a hawk’s nest, the effects of recent flooding, his favorite trees and views. One of the more remarkable things about McCain is how his experience as an outdoorsman has affected the personal journey he’s made during his years in public life. When he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982, McCain was a hard-line, red-meat Republican conservative whose role models were Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. Over the past 20 years, he has morphed into an unapologetic moderate – even a progressive when it comes to the environment.

Are you an environmentalist?
[Laughs] Oh, I think so. I think that as I have grown older, like most people I have grown to appreciate nature, and, being chairman of the [Senate] Commerce Committee, I got involved in climate change.

But when you were first elected to the House…
…I was certainly not an environmentalist.

So how did the transition take place?
I think it was gradual over the years. I just learned more and, you know, gained more knowledge and understanding. One of the great things about committee hearings is, if you do it right, you learn a lot. You just grow. But it was Mo Udall who took me as a junior member of the Interior Committee – and he was a powerful chairman – and educated me on the issues. He transmitted to me his genuine love for the environment and for Native Americans. He was responsible – and I assisted him – for taking 3 million acres of Arizona and putting it into permanent preservation as designated wilderness. That was a major, major thing. Mo and I traveled around the state, visiting the Indians, looking at land, and things like that. He was a great influence on me. Now I’m close friends with Mo’s son Mark, who is in the House. [Udall, a Democrat, died in 1998.] He reminds me of his father – his mannerisms, his looks, his voice, that love of the environment. I take him on trips with me. I’ve told him many times how much his father influenced me.

You mentioned climate change earlier, but some of your colleagues have been reluctant to acknowledge that the phenomenon even exists. You seem to believe firmly that it does.
I know it does – it’s not a belief – I know. There is overwhelming evidence.

What should we do about that?
We should be trying to reduce the greenhouse gases that are, according to the National Academy of Science, generated by human activity.

Isn’t that what the Kyoto treaty was intended to do?
Yes, but they left out China and India – two of the fastest growing economies in the world! That’s just not right. I believe we should have an alternative to Kyoto where China and India have to join, and the United States has to join, and a few other changes as well. We need to have an international treaty to bring the growth of greenhouse gases under control.

On a day-to-day basis, what should be done?
This is the key to winning the battle on climate change: convincing businesses that there is money to be made if they develop cleaner technologies and reduce greenhouse gases. Right now, too many companies, particularly utilities, but also others, believe it would be very harmful to them economically. We have to make it beneficial to them.

What has the Bush administration done? What will be Bush’s legacy on the environment?
The administration has done…It’s extremely low…. And I’m very sorry for that.

Does the influence of major corporations have something to do with that?
I’m certain that special interests play a role in this – as they do in everything else – but I’m not sure why there has been such great resistance in the Bush administration to doing, you know, almost anything. It’s terrible.

Care to hazard a guess why?
Listen, the way democracies work is, you face a crisis and you fix it. The S&Ls collapse – you face it, you fix it. The problem with this crisis is, the consequences of it are not felt right away. So our failure to act is placing a huge burden on our future.

But aren’t the polar ice caps melting now?
Sure they are. A couple of years back, a Congressional delegation was invited by the Norwegian government to the northernmost inhabited place in the world. It’s a Norwegian territory, but there are eight other countries that are doing Arctic research up there, including the United States. So Hillary Clinton, Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, John Sununu, and I flew up there on a military airplane, and officials of the Norwegian government showed us the visible effect of climate change. Both poles are experiencing far more of the effects of it because of the thin atmospheric layer there, and so you’re seeing significant effects. We went on a boat with the Norwegians, and they stopped the boat and said, “This is where the glacier was five years ago.” And then we went a number of miles farther up to get to the glacier. It had shrunk that dramatically in the past few years. When you see something like that graphically demonstrated, it increases your awareness. We were there on the last night of the 24-hour sun, and I sat outside my room and watched the sun dip down and touch the horizon and then go back up. It was a remarkable experience.

Seeing that must have really driven the point home.
Sure. The ice caps are the miner’s canary of what is going to happen to the rest of the world. The Australians have said the Great Barrier Reef is going to die by 2050. Things are happening all over the world. I mean, Florida has four hurricanes in one season – I don’t have the proof that climate change causes that, but scientists say that one of the indicators of climate change is violent climate activity.

What’s the general feeling within the Republican Party about this issue?
Oh, I don’t think they’re focused on it. They’re being convinced by others that it’s not a big deal.

So basically you’ve taken an unpopular stance here in your own party.
I’ve done it before. You’ve just got to do what’s right, that’s all. You’ve got to do what you believe.

What do you feel when you hear someone like Rush Limbaugh call environmentalists – and you are one, as you say – “wackos” and “tree-huggers”?
None of that bothers me anymore. What took me some years to learn is that you can’t take that stuff personally. You just recognize where they’re coming from and, if you have to respond, do not get personal. I can get in the bitterest debates on the Senate floor now and walk away friendly. As long as you don’t, you know, malign someone’s character, you’re going to be fine.

Part of your legacy, to date, is for being a crusader for change. In political fights like these environmental issues, how do you keep from getting frustrated?
I used to, but now I don’t. I mean, you just do what’s right. Most of the time, if it’s the right thing to do, eventually you win – because the facts and history are on your side. You know, we will win on climate change. The question is, how much damage will be done beforehand? We won on campaign finance reform, but it took seven years. I won on setting up the 9/11 Commission, but it took a year. I won on setting up a WMD commission, but it took time, too. You’ve just got to keep fighting and fighting and fighting – that’s it.Among McCain’s many pastimes – fishing, hiking, swimming, gardening around the cabin – few equal his love of sports. He has frequently been photographed at major sports events, such as the Super Bowl and the World Series, but he is just as devoted to sports on a day-to-day basis. As if to prove that point, he ends the evening, after his guests have gone home, in front of his television in the living room of the main house, his dogs Coco and Sam on the sofa with him, watching the Phoenix Suns play the Dallas Mavericks. “We have season tickets, but because of my schedule we only get to about 10 games out of the year,” McCain says to me before he starts systematically rattling off stats and dishing his opinions about some of the players, among them Steve Nash (“When he’s on the bench with an injury, we miss him”), Amare Stoudemire (“a natural, as good as LeBron James”), and Joe Johnson (“solid”).

When Dallas goes up by six with 1:46 to go, McCain becomes dejected, muttering under his breath. But then Johnson sinks a 16-footer with 4.7 seconds left and Phoenix goes ahead. “Yes! Yes!” McCain yells, practically jumping out of his seat. Shawn Marion blocks a last-second layup, the buzzer sounds, and Phoenix wins it. “We did it! Marvelous!”

Because you’re such a big sports fan, it’s got to be frustrating for you to see all these revelations about steroid use recently. What do you think of all that?
I believe baseball is the national pastime, and I think steroids are doing great damage to it. I’m deeply disappointed about it. What’s more, I was told by the commissioner of baseball that the punishment for a first offense was a 10-day suspension. Now we read the fine print and find that it could also be a $10,000 fine! Actually, it says, “up to a $10,000 fine,” which means a guy could have, like, a $100 fine. They totally misrepresented it. Ten thousand to some of these guys is a tip to their limo driver, you know?

How did you realize how big the problem is?
It was about three years ago, when I was talking to Curt Schilling. I’m friends with him and his wife, and he was good enough to go down to Yuma, Arizona, to the marine base there and welcome the marines home after they came back from the initial phase of the war in Iraq. He’s very patriotic. His father was in the army. By spending time with him that day I got to know him better, and we started having conversations about steroids. Really one of the things that grabbed my attention was his statement in the big ‘Sports Illustrated’ article a couple of years ago where he said some of these guys look like Mr. Potato Head. Frankly, I had not known about steroids changing the size of your cranium.

What should be done about steroids?
Simple. They should be banned – not because of the athlete in professional sports but because so many high school athletes in America think that the only way you can make it to the major leagues is to use drugs. That’s a terrible thing. The ideal fix is to have a regime like they do for the Olympics. That is, the first offense, you’re banned for two years – and there should be a vigorous testing program.

Should there be some sort of demarcation for records that may have been broken by players on steroids?
If there is ample evidence, like BALCO grand jury transcripts, I think there should be some kind of a caveat. But some of these other guys, where there’s no real evidence, I’m not sure you should judge them guilty until proven innocent. Speaking as a fan, I think it’s going to be a very tough thing to handle.

Why are you such a fan?
Because I was such a mediocre high school athlete. I love all sports. Cindy used to say I would watch the thumb-suckers play the bed wetters. I’ll watch rugby. I’ll watch Australian-rules football.

Is there any sport you won’t watch?
Golf – it’s too slow.

What about the amount of money in sports? How do we avoid things like what’s happened to hockey?
There’s nothing you can do; it’s capitalism. But sooner or later I think there’s going to be a backlash against baseball. You know, how are the Milwaukee Brewers, with a $20 million or $30 million payroll, ever going to compete with the Yankees, with a $200 million payroll? Eventually people are going to figure that out and want to go more in the direction of what the NFL does.

So much of being a sports fan is about having heroes, people to look up to, isn’t it? Who are your heroes?
Mike Christian. Bud Day. Billy Mitchell [all three of whom were war heroes]. Teddy Roosevelt. My grandfather [the first of four generations of John Sidney McCains was a four-star admiral and a hero in World War II]. Mr. Ravenel, my teacher from Episcopal High School. And Pat Tillman. I think a lot about Pat Tillman. He gave up so much. He had a nearly $4 million contract with the NFL and he said, in his words, “I haven’t done a damn thing for my country.” He joined the army, became a Ranger, fought, and was killed. I’ve said it before, a lot of us will live longer lives than Pat Tillman, but very few of us will live better ones.

You’ve mentioned Roosevelt twice now. Why has he been such a role model for you?
Because of everything he did and said and achieved. He had, first of all, a vision of greatness of America and the role it had to play in the world. He was the one who believed we had to have a navy, and by building one, he enhanced America’s strength as it emerged as a world power. He knew the influence of sea power on history. My father and grandfather admired him. [McCain’s father was also a four-star admiral.] All naval people admire him enormously.

Second of all, he was a great conservationist. He loved the outdoors and he loved America’s treasures and he had a large role to play in the national park system, making it one of his priorities. If you go to the El Tovar Hotel, which is on the rim of the Grand Canyon, the first person to sign in the guest book was Roosevelt. And he said [paraphrasing]: This is a great national treasure; it is your obligation to preserve it for future generations; do not mar it.

Third of all, he believed that everyone should have a “crowded hour,” as he called it. And that meant: Do as much as you can during the time you have. I have lived my life that way.

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