Q&A: John McCain Talks With TIME

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

TIME: What do you want voters to know coming out of the Republican convention — about you, about your candidacy?

John McCain: I'm prepared to be President of the United States, and I'll put my country first.

There's a theme that recurs in your books and your speeches, both about putting country first but also about honor. I wonder if you could define honor for us?

Read it in my books.

I've read your books.

No, I'm not going to define it.

But honor in politics?

I defined it in five books. Read my books.

[Your] campaign today is more disciplined, more traditional, more aggressive. From your point of view, why the change?

I will do as much as we possibly can do to provide as much access to the press as possible.

But beyond the press sir, just in terms of...

I think we're running a fine campaign, and this is where we are.

Do you miss the old way of doing it?

I don't know what you're talking about.

Really? Come on, Senator.

I'll provide as much access as possible...

What lessons did you draw from Hillary Clinton's campaign against Barack Obama?

I thought she ran a very honorable campaign and inspired millions of people including women who did not think...Now it's very clear that a woman can be a very viable and strong candidate for President of the United States.

Was there anything in the way that she ran against Senator Obama successfully, especially toward the end, that taught you something about how to wage this campaign?


In 2000, after the primaries, you went back to South Carolina to talk about what you felt was a mistake you had made on the Confederate flag. Is there anything so far about this campaign that you wish you could take back or you might revisit when it's over?

[Does not answer.]

Do I know you? [With a laugh.]

[Long pause.] I'm very happy with the way our campaign has been conducted and I am very pleased and humbled to have the nomination of the Republican Party.

You do acknowledge there was a change in the campaign, in the way you had run the campaign?

[Shakes his head.]

You don't acknowledge that? O.K., when your aides came to you and you decided, having been attacked by Barack Obama, to run some of those ads, was there a debate?

The campaign responded as planned.

When General Petraeus last came and spoke before the Senate, you laid out a pretty clear definition of what you saw as victory in Iraq. The government of Iraq has made clear in the last month or two that they might want a withdrawal before complete stability, before totally secure borders, before some of the completeness of victory as he described it then. Is there any change, do you think there is some wiggle room there? What you described with Petraeus was an end point that was rather complete, a peaceful, stable country ...

It's a peaceful and stable country now.

It is? But you wouldn't say you've achieved victory now?

Yes, I would say that the surge is succeeding and we are winning.

But we haven't reached victory yet?

I can say again that the surge has succeeded and we are winning.

But it's not yet at a point where significant draw-down of troops...

That's the view of General Petraeus... General Petraeus' strategy has succeeded. Senator Obama said it wouldn't, couldn't, and has denied that it has succeeded and we will be able to withdraw as we have in every time in history when counterinsurgency succeeds.

Just going back into biography a little bit ...

I've described thousands of times what victory is, and we've succeeded, we are winning, and we will come home with honor and victory, not in defeat.

Jumping around a bit: in your books, you've talked about what it was like to go through the Keating Five experience, and you've been quoted as saying it was one of the worst experiences of your life. Someone else quoted you as saying it was even worse than being a POW...

That's another one of those statements made 17 or 18 years ago which was out of the context of the conversation I was having. Of course the worst, the toughest experience of my life was being imprisoned, so people can pluck phrases from 17 or 18 years ago...

I wasn't suggesting it as a negative thing. I was just saying that...

I'm just suggesting it was taken out of context. I understand how comments are taken out of context from time to time. But obviously, the toughest time of my life, physically and [in] every other way, would be the time that I almost died in prison camp. And I think most Americans understand that.

I have a question about management style. There was a recent Washington Post interview with you in which you said a certain amount of chaos and differing opinions ...

No, I said tension.


There you go, that's a little different.

A certain amount of tension, differing opinions among your advisers, was a good thing. I'm struck by how when you talk to Obama about these things, he always talks about no drama — that's the catch phrase he's used internally over there. The question I have is: What about that leadership style you draw from, what you know about how your father led and how your grandfather led?

Most great leaders in history that I've studied always need to get as wide a range of opinions as possible so that they can have sufficient information to make the right decisions. I think it's important that the President of the United States consult as widely as possible with those who have different views so that he can — he or she — can make the most informed decisions.

Is creative tension a good way to describe it?

No, as I said, to get as wide and varying differences and view oints on issues is the best way, most knowledgeable way, to make an informed decision.

How different are you from President Bush? Are you in step with your party? Are you independent from your party?

My record shows that I have put my country first and I follow the philosophy and traditions of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Sometimes that is not in keeping with the present Administration or my colleagues, but I've always put my country first, whether it's saying I didn't support the decision to go to Lebanon or my fighting against the corruption in Washington or out-of-control pork-barrel spending, which has led to members of Congress residing in federal prison. So I've always stood up for a set of principles and a philosophy that I think have been pretty consistent over the years.

Secretary Rice, the Bush administration, our NATO allies, have declined to speed up the process of giving membership to Georgia. Is that a good idea or is that a sign of fear about alienating Russia?

I don't know what it's a sign of. I would, in the case of both Ukraine and Georgia, I would press for their early...movement on the schedule toward membership in NATO. I don't know what their motives or what reasoning is behind it, that recent announcement that Secretary Rice made.

So you think that it's better to move quickly and worry less about antagonizing Moscow, the Kremlin?

I think you've got a small country under basically occupation, where murder and looting is taking place. I think that the other countries in the region obviously are concerned. And I think we should move forward with a number of actions concerning WTO membership and G7 or G8, the Russians have membership, Ukraine and Georgia in NATO, among other things.

Your tougher line on Russia, which predated [the Russian invasion of Georgia], now to many looks prescient. Others say it's indicative of a belligerent approach to foreign policy that would perhaps further exacerbate the tensions being created with our allies and others around the world under the Bush Administration. How do you respond to that critique?

Well, it reminds me of some of the arguments we went through when Ronald Reagan became President of the United States. I think Russian behavior has been very clear, and I've pointed it out for quite a period of time, and the chronicle of their actions has been well known since President [Vladimir] Putin came to power, and I believe that it's very important that Russia behave in a manner befitting a very strong nation. They're not doing so at this time, so therefore I will criticize and in some cases — in the case of the aggression against Georgia — condemn them.

How would you describe your foreign policy? Where do you sit on the spectrum of foreign policy views? You have conservative advisers, you have realpolitik advisers. What is John McCain?

Well, I think that people can make their judgments on my positions and involvement in every major nation's security issues in the last 20 years or more. How I've played a role that Senator Obama never has. Key decisions, whether it be the first Gulf War, or Bosnia, or Kosovo, or other issues. But I believe my judgments are based on years of experience, knowledge and background. And I will stand by those judgments that I've made, at times when these national security issues have risen throughout the last quarter century.

You were a very enthusiastic supporter of the invasion of Iraq and, in the early stages, of the Bush Administration's handling of the war. Are those judgments you'd like to revisit?

Well, my record is clear. I believe that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. I believe it's clear that he had every intention to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction. I can only imagine what Saddam Hussein would be doing with the wealth he would acquire with oil at $110 and $120 a barrel. I was one of the first to point out the failure of strategy in Iraq under [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld. I was criticized for being disloyal to the Republicans and the President. I was the first to say I would lose a campaign rather than lose a war. I supported the surge. No observer over the last two years would say the surge hasn't succeeded. I believe we did the right thing.

I'm wondering if you have stories of meeting both [Mark] Salter and [Steve] Schmidt and deciding that they could be close advisers?

I have great respect for their talents and skills, and I appreciate their friendship very much. They're both very gifted individuals, and I'm very grateful to have their support, and their advice and counsel.

Is there anything about Schmidt's council that you thought stood out last year that would make you promote him through the ranks?


After the bio-tour last spring, I was e-mailed by an evangelical active in politics. They had a question about you. In your books and on that tour you told your life story as one of a redemption — discovering the value of passionate service and serving your country. But his question was about the sort of wild views that preceded that, and whether for President you would recommend those adventures you had to young people of this country. There was a time when you moved beyond that, but there were years when you were seeking out for a dream of meeting up with girls in various places. And the question I got in the e-mail was: What does John McCain think of premarital sex? What do you think about that? What are your thoughts?

I don't have any response to that type of question. I'm running for President of the United States; write what you want.

I'm curious...

My life has been well chronicled, in the books I wrote, and people who know me would say on many occasions that I've been a flawed and imperfect servant of my country, but I'm proud of my service to my country.

A lot of people know about your service from your books, but most people don't know that you have two sons currently in the military. Can you describe what it means to have Jack and Jimmy in uniform?

We don't discuss our sons.

Thank you.

Take care.

(See photos of John McCain's Tumultuous Week here.)