Transcript: Sen. John McCain Interview

The Republican Party is planning to roll out a number of its stars at its convention this week, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

President Bush considers the popular senator to be an asset to the campaign, but McCain is also a former opponent of Bush, a friend of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, and a vigorously independent advocate for the issues he holds dear.

Peter Jennings interviewed McCain about his feelings about Bush, the war in Iraq, the 2004 presidential election, and whether he has his own plans for pursuing the presidency. The following is an excerpt of that interview:

JENNINGS: Senator, it looks to a great many people like you and President Bush have had a reconciliation. Was there a need for you to reconcile?

MCCAIN: No, Peter. After the 2000 primary, we met two months after it, and resolved our differences. I campaigned strongly for him in 2000. I campaigned for Republican candidates in 2002. I campaigned for him in January, back in New Hampshire. So there's a bit of mythology that we've had some kind of reconciliation. And finally, no matter what happened in the year 2000, it is absolutely non-productive to look back in anger at anything that happened, and I wouldn't be serving my constituents by having something that happened four years ago dictate my behavior.

JENNINGS: Was it easy to get over that anger?

MCCAIN: It took a couple of months. That's why I took a couple of months to meet him in Pittsburgh. And it's awful easy to feel sorry for yourself. I do it all the time. But I figured that it would not be a good thing to do because it would then impact my ability to serve the country. And Americans don't like a sore loser, either, as you well know.

JENNINGS: But you've not been very well-treated by the Bush administration in these last four years. And you have been out of step with the administration on a good deal of policy. What's changed?

MCCAIN: Well first of all, I have been with him on the major issue of our time, which is the war on terrorism, which has transcended my view. Second of all, I'm with him on a number of issues — free trade, for example, and ardent free trade, and deregulation and many others. Have we disagreed on some big issues? Yes. Have we agreed on more issues than we've disagreed on? Yes.

JENNINGS: Do you take some satisfaction from the fact that the Bush administration now needs you?

MCCAIN: No, I don't. I think what I have to look at is the future of the country. I am a friend of John Kerry's. I think he'd be a good president. I think this president proved himself with his leadership after Sept. 11th, and his strength, and his ability to lead the country.

JENNINGS: Well, what are the things in the last four years about the president's policies that you really admire?

MCCAIN: Primarily his conduct after Sept. 11th. Rallying the nation in a very uncertain, in fact, frightened time, in the case of many Americans. Going to Afghanistan I think was exactly the right thing. I sill believe that the invasion of Iraq was appropriate. And I believe that if Saddam Hussein were in power today, he would still be trying to acquire those weapons. So that is the overriding issue. Now have we disagreed on tax cuts for the rich? Yes. Do I believe that there should be more emphasis on some environmental issues? Yes. But I also believe in free trade. I believe in building alliances. I believe in immigration reform, which the president has made a good proposal, I think. There's a number of other issues in which I've worked very well with him.

JENNINGS: Do you think the president has been the uniter, which he promised to be at the convention four years ago?

MCCAIN: No. But I'm not sure how much of it is his fault. And I'm sure that some of it's his fault, okay? But we have this bitterness from the Clinton impeachment, from the Florida election. He didn't have anything to do with the chads. We have a more bitterly partisan Congress and nation than I've ever seen, and it's regrettable. And I believe that the president, after he's reelected, will try to fix that.

JENNINGS: Do you think he's responsible for some of the bitterness, and the extreme partisanship in the country?

MCCAIN: I'm sure that some of the agenda that the Republicans have pursued from time to time have contributed to that. I think the Democrats have been very, very partisan. But I think there's an underlying unhealthiness here in American politics today. A degree of partisanship which is not at all helpful to resolving issues such a Social Security, Medicare, immigration reform, et cetera, that require bipartisanship.

JENNINGS: George Bush's political party, as we'll call it, is, among other things, is not well disposed to Senator McCain. And it is argued by some that your embrace of President Bush, in this campaign, is really a recalculation of your own political self-interest.

MCCAIN: You know, I hope that most of the people who have known me for the last 22 years that I've been in public office wouldn't believe that. Because I think most Americans that know me, and my constituents in Arizona do, that I try to do what's right. And many times that has not been popular, particularly at first. But my goal right now is to be reelected to the Senate. Am I confident of reelection? Yes. Do the people of Arizona expect me to seek their support and campaign for it? Yes.

JENNINGS: Is it a fair comment to make, that you need to make an impression upon the delegates at this convention if you wish to have a future as a leader of the party?

MCCAIN: First of all, I believe that most of these delegates know me already.

JENNINGS: They're not particularly disposed to you in many respects.

MCCAIN: In many respects they are not. And that's something that I have to live with. But I will continue to stand up and fight for the things that I believe in. I will be emphasizing national security and the war on terror, for one reason, being that it's the most transcendent issue of our time.

JENNINGS: Why are you not the heir apparent of the Republican Party? Or why are you heir apparent?

MCCAIN: I'm sure that I'm not. I'm sure that there is a base of our party which is, I wouldn't say further to the right, as much as I would say have different priorities than I do. I am a strong, fiscal conservative. I think that the pork barrel spending practices in Congress are obscene. And I think we're wrecking our children's futures. Now, I think that most Republicans, at the grass-roots level, agree with me. And don't agree with my colleagues in Congress that engage in those practices.

JENNINGS: You're popular with independents and Democrats. You come from an important state. You want to be the president of the United States; you've made that perfectly clear by running in 2000. And [you] might have had a better shot if George Bush's method of campaigning against you had not knocked you off the rails. In order to succeed you have to be popular with Republicans.

MCCAIN: The only reason why I'm as popular as I am [is] because people believe that I do what I think is right, even if there's great political risk. If I lose that, and I will admit to you that I risk that literally every day I make some decision, then I will lose my effectiveness. My goal in life is to be able to affect the formulation of public policy, and do what I can to preserve the security of this country. If I succeed then, the popularity follows. Not the popularity before it. And if I am wrong, if I make a mistake, then I pay a penalty for it. But I've found that politicians who seek popularity first, and then take positions, usually get found out sooner or later.

McCain in 2008?

JENNINGS: So I'm bound to ask you, are you at the very least open? Are you at the very least open to running for the presidency again?

MCCAIN: I would have to say I'm not closed. But first of all, I've got to focus on reelection. Second, it would be foolish. You don't know who the president of the United States is [going to be], although I believe it's going to be President Bush. Third of all, I'm 68 years old today.

JENNINGS: You would indeed be older than [former President] Ronald Reagan [was when he was elected] if you ran again.

MCCAIN: Yeah. I think that's a consideration of my health. But again, I think there's a time and a place for everything in politics. And for me, at this time, to speculate even openly, or even mentally, about running for president of the United States when I haven't been even reelected to the Senate, is a waste of my time.

JENNINGS: I simply asked whether or not you are open to the idea.

MCCAIN: I am open to the idea, if I am reelected, and depending on circumstances. But not until.

Kerry's War Record

JENNINGS: Do you think Kerry has made a serious miscalculation by making his Vietnam experience as big a deal as he has?

MCCAIN: I believe that it was probably a mistake to emphasize it as much as he did. I believe the reason why he did, so that they could inoculate themselves against the "Dukakis in the tank" routine. And perhaps they overplayed their hand. But it's awful easy for me to sit on the sidelines. In South Carolina, which you referred to, I way overreacted. Way overreacted to the things that were said about me. So I'm sure no expert on how to do it right.

JENNINGS: Is [Kerry] not strong enough to be president?

MCCAIN: I think he's strong enough to be president. I just believe that President Bush has already proven his leadership by his conduct of himself and leadership of this country after Sept. 11th.

JENNINGS: Is John Kerry able to handle foreign affairs as well as President Bush?

MCCAIN: I would think he would handle it well. But again, I give the same answer about leadership. I think the president has proven leadership.

JENNINGS: We've got X-days left until the election itself. Are you disappointed that so much of the time has been given to this Swift Boat controversy [that attacked Kerry's war record], and not enough to other issues, which you believe profoundly in?

MCCAIN: I'm terribly disappointed. Today, probably a young American will die in Iraq — tragically. And instead of trying to work together, or apart, trying to resolve how we can win this conflict in Iraq, which is by no means certain, we're going back and refighting a war that we can't erase a single name from the Vietnam War memorial. And I think it's just terrible, and I know a lot of veterans, who are 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids. They fought honorably. They came home. And they were not well-treated by their fellow citizens. That dramatically exacerbated their problems. Some of them still haven't come all the way home. So we're reopening all of those wounds, and I'm deeply, deeply disturbed about it.

Examining the Iraq War

JENNINGS: Do you think there has been some miscalculation in Iraq?

MCCAIN: Sure. And I complained about them at the time.

JENNINGS: And what do you think it has been?

MCCAIN: I think that we didn't anticipate, as the president just said, the challenges that we face in the quote, post-combat phase. And I implore Secretary Rumsfeld to send more troops. But one of the reasons why we avoid wars, is because mistakes are made in wars. Gen. MacArthur told Harry Truman that the Chinese would not evade invade Korea. We always make mistakes.

JENNINGS: Do you think the president has been open and honest enough about his miscalculations?

MCCAIN: I'm glad to see that he has made comments about that. But I also think that we've done a lot of good things there, too.

JENNINGS: Can you tell me specifically what mistakes you think were made?

MCCAIN: Specifically, we allowed the looting. We should have shot the looters immediately, which [would not have] created an environment of lawlessness. We obviously should have understood that we had to have more troops there in the way of linguists and special forces, and civil affairs people. We should have probably made a transition to an Iraqi government sooner rather than later. But the point is, you make mistakes, you recognize the mistakes, and you fix them. That's what we need to do.

Impressions of Bush

JENNINGS: What are the choices that the president has made, which have most impressed you?

MCCAIN: Leading the country, as he did standing in the rubble with his arm around one of our heroes, and rallying the country. His speech to the nation, following that, was very important. Going to Afghanistan, and taking the war to al Qaeda, was absolutely the right thing to do. I believe that his commitment to free trade, I believe that his support of immigration reform. I could go down a long list of issues that I think that he's done, implemented, that are laudable.

JENNINGS: Anything else you want to say?

MCCAIN: I believe that my party needs to go back more to the principles of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, my two personal heroes — particularly on environmental issues. I believe that climate change is real. I think we need to address it in a more meaningful fashion. I think that we need to probably recognize that there are severe problems out there economically, and otherwise amongst lower income Americans. We've just seen those statistics.

JENNINGS: Any doubt about [President Bush] being reelected?

MCCAIN: I think this is going to be very close. But I think when people who are quote, undecided, go into the ballot booth, one of the major questions they'll ask themselves, who is going to lead in this very difficult times, in this war on terror that we're fighting. And I think they'll pull George Bush.