Interview with John McCain

Back in 1998, when he was just a potential 'dark horse presidential candidate', Mother Jones magazine interviewed John McCain. As the South Carolina primary approaches, we thought it time to bring him back on the MoJo Wire. (Originally from the Nov./Dec. 1998 issue of Mother Jones)

Of all the dyed-in-the-wool conservatives one finds on Capitol Hill, Sen. John McCain of Arizona is certainly the least boring. Though he's predictably Republican in many ways -- he's an ardent free-marketeer and pro-lifer, and he gets low marks from environmental groups -- McCain has, in the past year, stridently stood up to the GOP leadership and worked with his erstwhile political opponents in the Senate for campaign finance reform and the tobacco settlement. Both efforts failed (largely due to lack of Republican support), but they helped increase McCain's public standing; his image as a courageous reformer has even led to speculation about a dark horse presidential candidacy in 2000. But critics say that image is carefully cultivated, and many accuse the press of going soft on McCain, who heads the powerful Senate Commerce Committee.

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When Mother Jones dropped in on McCain at his Washington, DC, office in mid-September, Lewinsky-mania was in full swing. Despite his well-known temper -- he once reportedly got into a scuffle with his nonagenarian colleague Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) -- McCain was relaxed and smiling, displaying the forthright charm that has made him the darling of political reporters while trenchantly defending his right to accept campaign contributions from the likes of Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch.

 

In September, the day after campaign finance reform was killed in the Senate for the third time, the news was buried on Page A16 of the New York Times under an avalanche of Clinton-Lewinsky reporting. What did you think when you saw the Times that day?

It's an affirmation that this firestorm has sucked all the oxygen out of the political debate in America. I had some confidence that we would at least pick up some more votes. Well, the president gave his speech -- the apology/nonapology speech -- and we took up the bill. It was two days of desultory discussion. It wasn't even a debate. Nothing in the media, no phone calls, no interest. We got the same 52 votes, and it was like dropping a stone in a well.

 

Did you expect it to end this way?

You can understand people who want power and want to corrupt or destroy the constitutional balance. You can understand that, because that's why our Founding Fathers set up this system of checks and balances: There are always going to be people who want more power than is appropriate or healthy for the republic. But certainly, never in my life did I contemplate such a tawdry thing. Such an embarrassment.

 

Doesn't the current situation strike you as going a little too far?

I don't blame Mr. Starr as much as I blame the law. The responsibility has to come back to Congress for formulating such a law, perhaps even the president for signing it.

 

How many of your colleagues could have withstood a Kenneth Starr?

I don't know, because I don't know their personal lives. I don't socialize with many Senators, much less House members, but let me tell you, I'm one who has undergone a special counsel. The special counsel's name was Mr. Robert Bennett in the Keating Five matter. [But] your point is legitimate, because Bennett was not given a charter to look at whether I had an affair 30 years ago with Cherie Snodgrass. [Laughs.]

 

Give me an example of why you think we need campaign-finance reform.

The so-called Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996, where every major telecommunications company was protected. Only one group was not represented while we formulated that particular piece of legislation, and that was -- guess who? -- the average American citizen, who has seen the cable rates go up 20 percent [in some cities], who has seen mergers and consolidations within the industry that have been found to be anticompetitive. You know how many people voted against that bill? Five.

As for the businesses [that lobbied for the bill], I respect those people, because they're trying to do the best they can for their stockholders, and they have fiduciary responsibilities. I don't blame them for trying, for enhancing their profits and protecting their turf. I blame us for falling prey to the influence of somebody like AT&T, which in 1996 gave $780,000 to Republicans and $456,000 to Democrats -- which is not political schizophrenia, it's good business. If I were a CEO of a major corporation, I would do the same thing. I would say, Look guys, they're passing legislation. Get down there to Washington and make sure that we aren't harmed by it. So I don't hold animosity toward them. I hold animosity toward the system, which is completely broken. Where, in the words of [Sen.] Fred Thompson [R-Tenn.], there is no limit to the amount that you can contribute to any campaign in America.

 

How much difference did Thompson's investigation into fundraising practices in the '96 election really make?

Two things happened with Thompson's committee. One was that we were unable to act in a bipartisan fashion. But there was also the factor that Republicans made sure that there was only one year under which Thompson's committee could operate, thereby allowing the administration to just walk it. And they were selling seats on trade missions. Not to mention everything else in government.

 

Your own party wasn't missing any dirt under the fingernails, either --

Go no further. If this independent counsel is appointed, and I believe it will [be], either to investigate [former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold] Ickes or the Vice President, you will see this scandal touch Republicans as well. Your point is very well made. Why do you think the Republicans made sure that the committee stayed in business for only a year?

It's the system. The system makes good people do bad things, and bad people do worse things. And we are dramatically diminished in the eyes of the people we represent when we are a product of a system that has become fundamentally corrupt.

 

The conventional wisdom is that money doesn't buy votes, it buys access.

But access buys influence. You forget there's a corollary to that.

 

So how do you handle it?

Because I'm chairman of the Commerce Committee, I see the CEOs of major corporations. Which has nothing to do with campaign donations -- I have oversight of their businesses and I'll see the CEOs. I don't see the lobbyists, OK? If somebody calls -- say if the CEO of PrimeStar wants to see me -- I say, "Fine, tell him to come in." But if a lobbyist with PrimeStar calls and says he wants to come in, I say, "No, talk to my staff." But when Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union or Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen wants to talk to me, I say, "Come on in." What I try to do is listen to a balanced set of viewpoints, not dictated by campaign contributions or anything else, whether they're Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or vegetarians. But there's nothing wrong with talking to people who are the experts on the issues.

 

Certainly. But it was reported earlier this year that when Microsoft's COO Bob Herbold came to visit you, he asked what Microsoft could be doing better in Washington and you told him to fire up a lobbying campaign.

No, no. I said, "The way the game's played in Washington, you're gonna have to have a greater presence here in Washington," is basically what I said. In a perfect world I would say, "Stay out and don't have anything to do with [lobbying]," but you have to have a presence here in Washington.

 

Bill Gates has given you money, and so has Rupert Murdoch. Both have business before your committee. This is exactly the thing that most people would raise an eyebrow at. Why do you take their money?

It would be nearly impossible for me to raise money without them. But the important point here is that the evil is soft money. There's nothing wrong, in my view, with taking a $1,000 contribution from anybody who wants to give it. And if it comes from Mr. Gates, or if it comes from my next-door neighbor in Phoenix, I think it's OK. I don't think the system was corrupted until soft money exploded, and I won't have anything to do with soft money.

 

A number of observers have noted that if Microsoft's antitrust issues were heard in your committee instead of the Judiciary Committee, Microsoft would get a much friendlier reception.

They'd get a friendly reception in my committee because a lot of us have grave concerns about what the government's doing here. Our focus is not antitrust considerations -- it's the health of the telecommunications industry in America. Our interest and our charter are directed toward the future of the industry.

 

So you're not worried about Microsoft warping the industry?

I worried about IBM warping everyone. I worried about Apple warping everyone until they screwed up their marketing techniques. But I don't think Mr. Gates, or anyone, knows where this industry is going, as smart as he is. Of course I'm concerned about it. My question is, What is the role of the federal government? I remember when the federal government brought a suit against IBM. And then 13 years later, it went before some judge and said it's irrelevant because of the rapid changes in the computer industry.

 

You not only have had combat experience in Vietnam, but you were also a prisoner of war. When you look at terrorism right now, with people like Osama bin Laden, do you have any reservations about watching strikes like that?

You could say, Look, is this guy, Laden, really the bad guy that's depicted? Most of us have never heard of him before. And where there is a parallel with Vietnam is: What's plan B? What do we do next? We sent our troops into Vietnam to protect the bases. Lyndon Johnson said, Only to protect the bases. Next thing you know.... Well, we've declared to the terrorists that we're going to strike them wherever they live. That's fine. But what's next? That's where there might be some comparison.

 

Now, about tobacco…

Ah, part of my string of successes: campaign-finance reform, tobacco bill, pork-barrel spending. I have a number of notches in my gun.

 

When you were handed that task, what was your first thought?

I thought, "This is going to be a huge undertaking." But I thought that we could do it. I underestimated several challenges, but primarily I underestimated the willingness of the tobacco companies to spend as much money as they did, in such a concentrated fashion. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center did a study that showed that more money was spent on this than any other [single-issue campaign], and they really saturated, including my state, by the way. One of the ones they saturated with was, "What's happened to John McCain? He's become a big-spending, big-government liberal -- what's happened to John McCain?" After X million [dollars], people started stopping in the street and saying, "What's happened to you?" Like I had an automobile accident or a lobotomy. So it had great effect.

 

Did you see that as the beginning of something more ominous?

I first saw that they would do anything, because they are bad people. They are really bad people. And I thought they would probably attack me personally, because if they could take me down, they could take anybody down. And they were running full-page ads in Roll Call with my picture. Why do you think they were doing that? Because they were influencing voters? No. They were influencing members.

 

In terms of influence, it seems that the religious right has succeeded in making sexual morality the pre-eminent national issue.

My party is a majority, which means there are more elements to it, and which argues for a bigger tent. If we're going to get the center and hold the center, then we're going to have to be able to tolerate and even embrace, on occasion, disparate views. And I could make you a case, if you look at elections, that the so-called Christian right has been losing as many elections as they've been winning.

Yes or no: Are you going to run for president in 2000?

I'm going to run for re-election in the Senate, and then I'm going to start the decision-making process. I have no PAC; I have no campaign team. I have been to New Hampshire, I think, twice this year. I've been to Iowa once or twice. I'm not one of those frequent visitors. And I just decided [that] after the election I would start talking to people to see if it's a viable undertaking.

 

Finally, speaking of presidential politics and ethics: What is character?

Human foibles, whether they be a predilection, or immorality, or gambling, or mistreating your wife, or kicking dogs -- that's a different kind, in my view, of morality. Whereas character -- I'm trying to think who it was who said, "Character is who you are in the dark."

One of my greatest criticisms of this administration is that every time I talk to one of their people on an issue, you know what their opening phrase is? Three words: "We polled this." We polled this, so you should vote for school uniforms, you should be in favor of putting deadbeat dads' pictures in the post office, you should be in favor of whatever it is, the issue du jour. How many Americans do you think favored the United States, under the aegis of the United Nations, sending 480,000 Americans to fight and 54,000 of them dying in Korea? What if Harry Truman had said, Let's take a poll here as to whether the American people want us to send troops to Korea. See what I mean? That's my point. That's what character is, OK?