Interview: McCain on Energy, Torture and Gaffes

While riding in a black SUV through a crowd of protesters on his way to deliver a speech at the 2008 American GI Forum in Denver, Sen. John McCain spoke with NEWSWEEK's Suzanne Smalley. Edited excerpts:

Smalley: You value straight talk.
McCain: I'll give you that.

Some of your proposals seem a little gimmicky, like the $300 million prize for inventing a new, more powerful car battery. If someone were capable of inventing it, wouldn't they have done it already?
You could argue tax cuts could be viewed as a gimmick; anything we do for people to encourage American entrepreneurs and innovators could be viewed as a gimmick. And I don't view it as a gimmick. I view it as an incentive to address one of the most important challenges Americans face today, and that is to become energy-independent and to have automobiles that they can drive without having to be bankrupted.

You've advocated for lifting a ban on offshore drilling. Why is drilling there preferable to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
Because the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I believe that offshore drilling is clearly called for. I think we need to do it, and we have to do it.

You've taken heat lately for a string of misstatements about foreign-policy issues. Some news reports have suggested your age could be slowing you down. How do you explain those gaffes?
I spend most of my days with town-hall meetings and with people—people like you. And occasionally there will be a misstatement. But you know, at a town-hall meeting I've never had a person stand up and say, "Hey, Senator McCain, you've made a gaffe." They stand up and they say, "How do I stay in my home? How do I keep my job? How do I afford to drive to work?" Et cetera. And, by the way, some of those "gaffes" have not been [misstatements], but they've been portrayed as such. But I'm not complaining. It's fine with me. The American people know me.

On torture, why should the CIA be treated differently from the armed services regarding the use of harsh interrogation tactics?
Because they play a special role in the United States of America and our ability to combat terrorists. But we have made it very clear that there is nothing they can do that would violate the Geneva Conventions, the Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibits torture. We could never torture anyone, but some people misconstrue that who don't understand what the Detainee Treatment Act and the Geneva Conventions are all about.

What should our policy be toward gays who want to serve in our military? And would your decision be influenced at all by the needs of commanders on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially with more soldiers needed?
Obviously, we listen to our commanders on the ground, who are in charge and have a responsibility for those young men and women. They say that "Don't ask, don't tell" is working, so unless they recommend otherwise I'm certainly going to support their recommendations, which were originated with Gen. Colin Powell.

Do you think that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is a tool of Vladimir Putin? And if our ally Georgia is threatened or attacked by Russia, how would you respond?
Well, I can't get into hypotheticals, but I can tell you that ... the relationship between Medvedev and Putin is unclear, but it certainly is disturbing, the trend of their behavior towards their neighbors, including their failure to cooperate with us in face of the Iranian nuclear buildup.

How do you plan to win the votes of women? What policies can you point to that will help you win their support?
Job creation is one of their No. 1 issues, and education and equal opportunity. I have not only a very clear record, but I have a very clear vision to restore our economy, to create jobs and particularly small businesses and to protect America for their sons and husbands and friends and cousins and [family] members, men and women, who are serving in the military.

Are you worried being pro-life will drive them away?
The majority of women in America, in my view, respect the rights of the unborn.