From the road in Florida last Friday morning, en route to a fund-raiser and then a tour of the Everglades, John McCain spoke with NEWSWEEK's Holly Bailey and Jon Meacham by telephone about the general election, Barack Obama, Iraq, prewar intelligence and the press. Edited excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Sir, Senator Obama is a hugely gifted politician. This is a brutal year on a clinical level for any Republican to be running.
So what's the strategy? How do you overcome those two things?
Well, the strategy is the themes of reform, prosperity and peace, and I have the experience, background and a record and the kind of judgment to lead the country through extremely difficult times. There are threats to our economy that are incredibly serious—witness the unemployment numbers that just came out—and to our nation's security. I'm convinced that, using the kind of communications that won me the nomination of my party against significant odds, I will be able to gain the presidency as well. But I think it's got to do with substance, and it's got to do with a concrete plan of action for the future of the country.
The other night you were using the trope "That's not change we can believe in." Watching, it struck me that fighting on somebody else's rhetorical field and offering a negative as opposed to a positive is not the most vigorous way forward.
Well, I think it's an important part of this campaign to point out that everybody wants change, but there is a right change and a wrong change. I believe that what Senator Obama is advocating is a return to the failed policies of the '60s and '70s—bigger government, higher taxes—and certainly not the same view on national-security challenges. So, I thought it was important to point out that there is a right change and a wrong change.
What did you and Senator Obama talk about [in a telephone call after Obama secured the nomination]?
Well, first of all, it was a private conversation, but second of all it was cordial. I congratulated him, as you might expect, and said I looked forward to the town-hall meetings and hoped we could get started right away. I would like to do 10 of them, starting with one next week at Federal Hall in New York.
I noticed you have gotten under his skin a little bit in terms of saying that "for a young man with no experience he's done quite well."
Did you watch him the other night when he accepted—
No, I didn't. I have watched other speeches that he's given, and I certainly admire his eloquence. I have said that a number of times.
In St. Paul, he said, to paraphrase, that he honors your achievements even though you choose to deny his.
We have sharp differences.
I think it's important to know that when he wants to have a specific withdrawal strategy, getting the troops out of Iraq, he has not sat down with General Petraeus, the leader of our troops over there. I think that needs to be pointed out to the American people because it's American lives that are on the line as we speak.
So if that shows a lack of respect, I respectfully disagree. I think it shows that there is nothing more important than the security of this nation and the lives of the men and women who are serving it, and he hasn't ever seized an opportunity to sit down with the general who is in charge over there. These young Americans are serving with such courage and dedication.
If he wants to call it that, fine. He's free to call it whatever he wants, but I think it's important to point out what he has done and what he hasn't done, as well as what I have done, and my clear record.
One of those areas is bipartisanship. He talks about bipartisanship. There is little or no evidence of that in his time in the Senate. I have a long record, ranging from Ted Kennedy to Russ Feingold to Joe Lieberman.
I think it's important to point these things out, and I will. And I don't believe it's disrespectful to do so. I think it's part of the evaluation process that the American people are doing.
By the way, do you think it's disrespectful for him to have distorted my comment about being in Iraq for a hundred years? Every objective organization in America said that's a false characterization of my remarks in the context of what's necessary to stop the casualties and have a victory, rather than saying we are going to be in a war for a hundred years. I have given other speeches saying we are going to win this war, and we are winning it now, and he refuses to acknowledge that.
So, the parameters of this debate are not going to be set by Senator Obama. The parameters of this debate will be decided by the American people, and they will judge whether I have respected him or not. I believe that I respect him in every possible way, and I will continue to do so.
Do you think that an Obama presidency would make the country less secure?
Not as secure as my presidency would. That's one of the major reasons why I'm running. I believe I have the experience and the knowledge and the judgment to make America more secure than an Obama presidency would. And if I thought he would make it safer, then obviously I would not have much of a reason for me seeking the presidency.
So, is he ready to be commander in chief?
That is a decision that will be made by the American people. I will point out his record: lack of experience, and again, things like [the] failure—it's now the 878th or 879th day since he went to Iraq. How do you know what the situation is and how do you make judgments if you don't go there? How do you say the surge has failed when it's clearly succeeding? It's clearly succeeding. Only the most devout believers [in America's inability to win] will now say that the United States is not winning the war in Iraq. We are winning, but he is saying we are not.
There was an interesting Senate intelligence committee report this week about the administration allegedly misleading the nation on prewar intelligence. What is your view of the report? Do you think the intelligence was honestly misinterpreted, or do you think the administration was willfully spinning the rest of us back in '02 and '03?
I have not read the report, and I intend to, and I can make more-informed comments about it then. I do know that every intelligence agency in the world, some of the intelligence agencies not representing nations that are particularly friendly to us, firmly believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was developing them.
So when French intelligence and German intelligence and all the others—I don't know what role spin plays in it, but I don't think it would have been very easy for anyone in this administration to spin French intelligence or other nations that held the same view.
Second thing is, obviously, we would all be very happy, I think, if Saddam Hussein was removed from power in the very rapid military operation that we were able to achieve, and we had a stable government in Iraq. Unfortunately, the war was badly mishandled. I went over there early on, came back and said we have got to change the strategy and argued against the failed strategy that the president and [Donald] Rumsfeld were carrying out. And, finally, after four years of enormous sacrifice, we changed our strategy, and it's winning.
So, I will read the intelligence committee's report, but at the same time I think it's very clear that there was a widespread belief not just spun by the administration— unless you believe the intelligence agencies of virtually every nation in the world that we know that engages in it believes the same thing, and they were spun.
So, they may have spun. They may have misrepresented—I don't know—but I do know that every other intelligence agency in the world believed that they had [weapons of mass destruction] and that Saddam Hussein was acquiring them.
The second thing, of course, is that the sanctions were breaking down, airplanes were getting shot at, it was a multibillion- dollar scandal in the Oil-for-Food Program. So it's pretty clear that the status quo was not going to prevail.
There was a report raising questions about statements you made in the past about the wiretapping program and what your advisers say [today]. Have you changed your thinking on wiretapping?
Of course not. My position has been exactly the same. I have always said the president should obey the law. I still believe the president should obey the law.
Want to back up a little bit and talk about press coverage. One of the things that you mentioned in your speech in New Orleans was that you felt that the media hadn't recognized or had overlooked some of the attributes that Hillary Clinton had brought to the race. And I wondered—
I did not--that was in prepared remarks, and I did not--I'm not in the business of commenting on the press and their coverage or not coverage... My supporters and friends can comment all they want about the press coverage, and that's their right. They're American citizens. I will not because I believe it's not a profitable enterprise for me to do so. I can't change any of the coverage that I know of except to just campaign as hard as I can and try to seek the approval of the majority of my fellow citizens.
It is something that the American people will judge, and I won't complain about it and I won't praise it. I will just run my campaign and hope that the American people will make a judgment.
This article was updated June 9th to clarify McCain's exact remarks to Newsweek.