Transcript: Gibson Interviews John McCain

Read Charlie Gibson's Full Interview With John McCain

Sept. 3, 2008—

The following is a full transcript of an interview of Sen. John McCain conducted by ABC News' Charlie Gibson for "World News" on Wednesday, Sept. 3, in St. Paul, Minn.

GIBSON: Senator, you're going to be accepting the nomination for president of the United States tomorrow night. You spent 5.5 years in a prison camp and you had a lot of time to think during that time. Did you ever, in your wildest imagination, think of such a thing?

MCCAIN: Never. Never. All I wanted to do was to get back in the Navy and get back in the cockpit of an airplane and do the things that I'd been doing as a Navy pilot, and, of course, getting back to my country and my family and my friends, to the country I grew to love.

GIBSON: As it happens, is it a bit humbling? Is it intimidating? Is it in any way frightening?

MCCAIN: I think it's mostly humbling. Not only did I spend some time away, but I also was not exactly the most stellar graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. I stood fifth from the bottom of my class. So I doubt if my old company officer, a Marine captain, would have predicted.

Look, Charlie, I'm the luckiest guy that you'll ever interview. I've had so many close calls. I've had so much good fortune in my life that it's incredible to come to this stage of a journey that's been full of opportunities to serve.

GIBSON: Your image has always been sort of the outsider, the straight talker, the hell-bent, swashbuckling Navy pilot. Now that you're to be the nominee, is it in any way constraining?

MCCAIN: No. I think your lifestyle is constrained, say, that you have Secret Service around you all the time and that's understandable. I'm not complaining about it. It just changes your lifestyle. But no, overall.

But it's -- to think about people who were my predecessors, like Theodore Roosevelt, my hero, and Ronald Reagan and people who have -- who I competed against, who were all very high quality candidates and good and decent people, it's remarkable and it is humbling. It is incredibly humbling.

GIBSON: What are you going to say tomorrow night to make your case?

MCCAIN: I think we've got to make a case that I'm ready, that I put my country first, and it's time to put aside partisan rancor and differences and work together for the country and that I can create jobs and restore our economy and keep our country safe.

GIBSON: Barack Obama was very direct in his acceptance speech of his criticisms of you. Would you do likewise?

MCCAIN: I think -- I think we will point out some of the differences, but I think the important thing right now is to tell Americans why I can -- why I can restore our economy, get them affordable and available health care, a decent education, get these jobs back and get our economy going again, as well as keeping our nation secure. And new challenges seem to arise all the time. I see there's stirrings in North Korea. I see that the Russians continue to occupy parts of Georgia that they committed not to and Afghanistan and Pakistan, it's more difficult.

But, first -- first, they want -- they want our economy restored, and that's understandable. They want to see America moving forward with good lives and good families and good jobs. So that's what I think that they want to hear most about.

GIBSON: He said a lot in his speech in criticism of you. It doesn't sound like you're going to spend as much, from what you say, going at him.

MCCAIN: Well, I'm not sure the American people won't get enough of that in the next 62 days. I think it's more important. And also, as you know, we've got a spectacular running mate here that has really captured America and certainly aroused a great deal of interest. So I'm hoping to do as well as she does tonight.

GIBSON: You said a few moments ago to me, "I'm going to say some things about Barack Obama that might surprise you."

MCCAIN: Well, I've tried to say that I admire and respect Sen. Obama. He has accomplished great things and he has motivated people and so -- and he loves his country, just as I do. It's just the differences that we have.

GIBSON: You mentioned your vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin. What does she need to do to make her case tonight?

MCCAIN: Well, I think Americans are going to be very, very, very pleased. This is a very dynamic person. She's been governor of our largest state, in charge of 20 percent of America's energy supply. She's been a mayor. She's done a lot of great things and so I think you're going to see that she's really going to have a remarkable impact on the American people.

I'm very excited about it. I'm very excited. I mean, this person is going to come to Washington and, I'm telling you, to the "old boy" network, they better look out, because change is coming.

GIBSON: Senator, since I've been following politics, every single presidential nominee has said that the first quality they look for in a vice presidential pick is the capability and the readiness to take over as president.

Can you look the country straight in the eye and say Sarah Palin has the qualities and has enough experience to be commander in chief?

MCCAIN: Oh, absolutely. Having been the governor of our largest state, the commander of their National Guard, she was once in charge of their natural resources assets, actually, until she found out there was corruption and she quit and said it had to be fixed.

Of course, it helps to be a mayor. When I think people compare her experience, in fact, and accomplishments, I think ethics in lobbying reform in a state that was beset by the influence of special interests, cutting taxes, giving the citizens back money.

I mean, she's got an incredible resume, including a beautiful family and a wonderful, loving, caring family. So I will think that, over time, people will compare her accomplishments with that of Sen. Obama, and his are very meager.

GIBSON: But he's been vetted. Nineteen months he's been debating...

MCCAIN: Sure.

GIBSON: ... in front of this country, 18 million times, the primaries people voted for him.

With her, we have your say-so.

MCCAIN: Well, the people of Alaska have vetted her. That's why she has an 80 percent approval rating.

The American people are going to vet her in the next couple of months, as we know, starting tonight. She has a proven record.

And, again, I don't like to make these comparisons. She's had positions of responsibility and authority. In all due respect to my friend, Joe Biden, he's never been executive of anything nor...

GIBSON: Neither have you.

MCCAIN: ... has Sen. Obama. Oh, I've commanded the largest squadron in the U.S. Navy, with huge responsibilities, many -- it's -- it was a leadership job, but it was also a huge responsibility.

So millions and millions of dollars of American assets and 1,000 men and women who were serving, I think that's enormous responsibility and I'm very proud of it.

GIBSON: Senator Obama makes the case he's CEO of a campaign, with a budget, multiple sized the budget of the state of Alaska.

MCCAIN: Sen. Obama, excuse me, has a campaign to run. Gov. Sarah Palin has 24,000 employees in the state government. They are -- she's responsible for 20 percent of America's energy supply.

I'm entertained by the comparison and I hope we can keep making that comparison that running a political campaign is somehow comparable to being the executive of the largest state in America.

That's entertaining.

GIBSON: But as you know, the questions revolve really around foreign policy experience.

Can you honestly say you feel confident having someone who hasn't traveled outside the United States until last year, dealing with an insurgent Russia, with an Iran with nuclear ambitions, with an unstable Pakistan, not to mention the war on terror?

MCCAIN: Sure. And one of the key elements of America's national security requirements are energy. She understands the energy issues better than anybody I know in Washington, D.C., and she understands.

Alaska is right next to Russia. She understands that. Look, Sen. Obama's never visited south of our border. I mean, please.

So she is experienced. She's talented. She knows how to lead and she has been vetted by the people of the state of Alaska. But most importantly, people in America want change. They don't want somebody from inside the beltway.

They want people who will come and stand up for change and do whatever is necessary.

She took on her own party. You'd have to describe to me one occasion where Sen. Obama took on anybody, any powerful interest in his own party.

GIBSON: But you criticized, for a long time, Sen. Obama...

MCCAIN: Sure.

GIBSON: ... based on his lack of experience...

MCCAIN: Sure.

GIBSON: ... in your words...

MCCAIN: Yes.

GIBSON: ... with the foreign policy area. Jan. 6, I'm quoting you, "Sen. Obama does not have the national security experience and background to be president."

MCCAIN: I said he didn't...

GIBSON: Sarah Palin does?

MCCAIN: I said that he didn't have the judgment. He doesn't have the judgment. He didn't have the judgment on Iraq. He still refuses to acknowledge that the surge has succeeded.

Gov. Palin knows the surge has succeeded. She's the commander of the Alaskan National Guard. He said that Iran was a tiny problem. He's never visited south of our border. He has no experience on these issues.

She has been in charge and she has had national security as one of her primary responsibilities. Sen. Obama has never had a position of responsibility to do with many of those responsibilities. I'm proud of her vision. I'm proud of her strength. And everybody knows energy is a key element in American strength and future. She knows how to address that issue.

GIBSON: You had many people to consider. Sen. Lieberman, who has spent a lifetime in government.

MCCAIN: Yes.

GIBSON: Gov. Romney, who has had large executive experience. Tom Ridge, who has served in so many different capacities.

And you feel she's more qualified than any of them.

MCCAIN: Of course, I think, overall, she's by far the best candidate. And, again, being governor with an 80 percent approval rating of America's largest state, I think, is a very significant plus.

And by the way, if you'd talk to the other governors who have worked with her, they're very impressed with her. They all give her very high marks, very high marks.

In the U.S. Senate, Sen. Obama has the most liberal extreme voting record of anybody in the Senate.

Gov. Palin has appointed Democrats, independents. She has reformed their government.

Sen. Obama comes from the old Chicago machine politics and has never taken on the special interests in his party on a major issue ever. She's taken them on time after time. That's what Americans want.

GIBSON: It says "Country First" all over the convention hall, as you'll see when you go in there tomorrow night, probably seen pictures of it, it says "Country First."

You can assure people you made this decision based on the idea of country first as opposed to a political decision to solidify the base of the party.

MCCAIN: I can look the country in the eye and say this is a person who will bring change to Washington and start working for you and upon your side. This is what Americans want. They don't want somebody who has -- who is, frankly, necessarily gone to Harvard or an Ivy League school. She probably hasn't been to a Georgetown cocktail party. But you know what? She represents everything we want to see in government and America -- change and reform and ethics and taking on the special interests.

That's what people want today. That's what she has to offer. And I'm telling you, Charlie, I believe, I am convinced -- if I'm convinced of anything, tonight's performance, I think, will convince a lot of Americans and a lot of this other stuff's going to go away immediately.

GIBSON: Let me ask you about issues.

MCCAIN: Sure.

GIBSON: Earmarks...[Palin] got $27 million in earmarks for her small town. You have talked about them in pernicious terms that you campaign. So why are they OK for them?

MCCAIN: And then she learned that earmarks are bad. I know lots of people that are converts. And then when she became governor, she said, "No more for my state." She said, "We don't want the 'Bridge to Nowhere.'"

She, of course, understood, over time, how terrible and pernicious these earmarks are and how great an evil they are, and I'm glad she took the position that she did, against the old bulls in her own party.

GIBSON: Gave a speech or spoke at a Pentecostal church not long ago, said, "Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers," talking about Iraq, "on a task that is from God." "From God." Do you agree?

MCCAIN: I think -- look, I think that they're on a task to try to defeat what Gen. Petraeus and Osama bin Laden have said is a central battleground in our struggle against radical Islamic extremism.

I think that, obviously, that we are facing a transcendent evil of radical Islamic extremism that wants to destroy everything we stand for and believe in and value. I know that's what she was talking about.

GIBSON: She reportedly favors teaching creationism along with evolution.

MCCAIN: I don't want her in a position of power and influence in America because we're talking about jobs that school boards do and other things. We can have differences on various issues. Americans want jobs. They want affordable health insurance. They want an education. They want all the things that are compelling issues to their families today.

GIBSON: Did you watch the Obama acceptance speech?

MCCAIN: I watched excerpts from it, yes, and it was very eloquent.

GIBSON: Your wife said she was offended when he said, "It's not that John McCain doesn't care. It's because he doesn't get it." Do you feel the same?

MCCAIN: Family members are always very sensitive and we all know that. This is a tough business that we're in. Everybody understands that. And I admire and respect Sen. Obama and we're going to have a very tough campaign. I understand that and I'm sure that everybody in my family does, too.

GIBSON: Serious reaction to this statement: "John McCain says he'd follow bin Laden to the gates of hell, but he won't even follow him to the cave where he lives."

MCCAIN: Well, look, President Clinton [had] opportunities to get Osama bin Laden. President Bush had opportunities to get Osama bin Laden. I know how to do it and I'll do it. And I understand and I have the knowledge and the background and the experience to make the right judgments.

Sen. Obama does not. He was wrong on Iraq. He underestimated Iran. He has no knowledge or experience or judgment. That's -- he doesn't know how -- how the world works nor how the military works.

I do and I can lead and I'll secure the peace.

GIBSON: And it's the first time I've had a chance to talk to you since you said about Barack Obama, "He would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign." Do you stand by that? That's a very, very...

MCCAIN: Sure. I mean, it's very clear that he lacks the judgment in order and he went...

GIBSON: It's not judgment you talked about.

MCCAIN: But -- OK.

GIBSON: You made a very declarative statement, "He would rather lose a war."

MCCAIN: And I'll make a very declarative statement that he went to the left of his policy to vote -- of his party, to moveon.org, and refusing to acknowledge the success of the surge today, no rational observer -- no rational observer would deny that we've succeeded, and he refuses to do so, because he won the nomination by going to the far left of his political base and that was against the war. And that's a fact.

GIBSON: But you didn't say judgment when you said that.

MCCAIN: I'm saying that what he did was motivated by political reasons. He took the position that he did for political reasons to get the far left of his party's support and win the nomination of his party. And now, incredibly, he still refuses to acknowledge that the surge is succeeding.

We just turned over Anbar province to the Iraqis, the bloodiest battleground of the whole Iraq War, and he refuses to acknowledge that. Why is that? It's judgment. It's judgment and it's making sure that he maintains the far left base of his party.

GIBSON: You don't talk much about your family. But you've got all seven of your kids here. How often do all seven of you get -- all seven of the kids see each other?

MCCAIN: On holidays, we all get together and we always find them -- usually, we try to all get together at our place up in northern Arizona...

GIBSON: And is it often all seven can make it?

MCCAIN: Not often all seven, but we certainly get a quorum. So we get together.

GIBSON: Well, but I wonder, what's the best part? Is it receiving the nomination of your party for the presidency or is it having all of the family together?

MCCAIN: I think that it's wonderful that they were all able to rearrange their schedules. Sometimes we haven't been able to do in the past.

GIBSON: Yes. But when pop gets the nomination, that's a big damn deal.

MCCAIN: I'm proud of all of them and I'm grateful that they've done well and I think we all in America understand today that families have challenges and I know there's further challenges for my family, but I thank God every day for them.

GIBSON: And can you really appreciate and enjoy this moment?

MCCAIN: You know, that's a good question, Charlie, because there's 1,000 things on my mind. You know, I worry about things and all that.

But just before going to sleep, I open my eyes and stare in wonderment that a person could really actually achieve the nomination of a great and wonderful party, but most importantly, of the greatest nation in the world, and it's an honor beyond description.

GIBSON: Good luck.

MCCAIN: Thank you, Charlie.

GIBSON: Thank you.