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Checking In From The Republican Convention

The New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick joins us from the Republican Convention in Minneapolis. Kirkpatrick is the author of a series of articles profiling John McCain. He covered the conservative Christian movement during the 2004 election.

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Transcript

DATE September 4, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick on
John McCain, his choices and decisions in the past and present
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Tonight John McCain will speak at the Republican convention, accepting his
party's nomination. My guest, David Kirkpatrick, has been writing a series of
biographical profiles of McCain in The New York Times. In today's paper he
co-wrote an article about how McCain's drive to succeed has often been in
conflict with his desire to serve a higher cause. In earlier articles,
Kirkpatrick described McCain's rise in politics, how and when he developed his
image as a maverick, what his response to 9/11 reveals about how he might
approach his responsibilities as commander in chief, and how his experiences
as a POW affected his views on war.

We're going to talk about these profiles, as well as McCain's alliance with
the Christian conservative movement and his choice of Sarah Palin as his
running mate. Kirkpatrick writes about politics for The Times, and covered
the Christian conservative movement during the 2004 presidential campaign.
This week he's reporting from the Republican convention.

David Kirkpatrick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I can't resist starting our
interview today by quoting something that you said to me on our show last
February, and this was right after John McCain had spoken at the annual
meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee, and he'd gotten booed
for talking about his habit of reaching on the aisle and working with
Democrats. And I asked you what concessions you thought conservatives wanted,
and you said, "First and foremost, they'd like a vice presidential pick who is
young and stoutly, vigorously conservative, because that's someone who, eight
years from now, should McCain win, would be in a position to become
president." So do you think that was a bit of prognostication?

Mr. DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, you're nice to quote me about something I was
correct about. That's what the conservatives said at the time, and apparently
they meant it. And now he has picked a vice presidential nominee who is
unmistakably, clearly conservative on all the issues that the base of the
Republican Party cares about, the life issue, the abortion issue, as we all
know, but also, you know, someone from the gun culture, someone who's cut
spending, someone's who's against gay marriage, someone who's skeptical about
global warming. If you're a kind of hard-core movement conservative, she's
for you. And they are rapturous, so to speak. They're dancing in the
streets.

GROSS: Has choosing Palin re-empowered the religious right at a time when
they were starting to feel slightly abandoned?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: I wouldn't say it's just choosing Palin. I think the
McCain campaign has worked very hard over a period of months, especially since
late June, to try to get the Christian conservative movement and the base of
the Republican Party in general on board. You know, as recently as June, I
was hearing that people were still quite tepid. You know, really important
leaders like Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family were saying, `No way, no
how could I ever pull the lever for this guy.' People at the grass roots out
in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Christian conservative get-out-the-vote
efforts really can make a difference were saying, `I'm not going to lift a
finger.' And the McCain campaign, I think, was picking that up. I mean, I've
heard of some specific meetings, you know, in late June, when they sent
operatives to sit down with a group of 30 or 40 organizers in Ohio, and the
operatives left the room convinced that these people weren't going to lift a
finger. And 10 days later, Senator McCain himself was sitting down with six
of the most important ones, and really face to face making the case that he
was someone they could trust. That's a level of diligence and an effort to
persuade that you didn't even see from President Bush four years ago.

And since then, the McCain campaign has been quite assiduous and forthright in
letting conservatives know that McCain is on their side. And the high point,
of course, was his presentation at the Saddleback forum, Rick Warren's church
out in California, where he said, really unmistakably, much more unmistakably
than we've seen a Republican presidential candidate say it in a long time, he
said, `A baby gets human rights at conception, full stop.' You know, President
Bush equivocated a lot about that. He would say, you know, `I'm pro-life,
but, you know, the culture's not ready, and we need to be'--he would use
euphemisms about babies welcome in life and protected in law, but it was never
quite as clear-cut as that. And now Senator McCain came out and said in a way
that really made a lot of conservatives sit up and take notice, you know,
`Human rights begin at conception.' And if that was sort of a pledge, and in
that context, the Palin nomination was a downpayment. It said to a lot of
conservatives, `Not only have I said this, but I'm going to show you that I
mean it in the ways that matter to you: appointments for the vice presidency
and, implicitly, for the Supreme Court.'

GROSS: You write that at one time John McCain had advocated moderating the
Republican platform's support for a ban on abortion without exception. And
you say now he's allowed conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly to shape what
many advocates say is the most conservative platform in the Republican Party's
history. What are some of those ways that it is perceived as the most
conservative platform in the party's history?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, the Republican platform has been conservative for a
while. For a long time it's opposed abortion in any case, even in instances
of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother is at risk. So that language
has been kept intact. They've added to that some praise for the Born-alive
Infants Act, which would stipulate that fetuses which somehow survive an
abortion procedure should be protected and given health care. They've ramped
up the opposition to same-sex marriage so that it reads like it would also
oppose quasi-marital civil unions, which are quite common now in several
states.

And on immigration, which has been a signature issue for Senator McCain, where
he has supported various measures to sort of loosen immigration rules or offer
a path to permanent citizenship for the millions of immigrants currently here
without documentation, the platform now calls for new laws that would overturn
court decisions and make it much easier to deport thousands or millions of
currently illegal immigrants. I mean, it is staunchly and unmistakably
rigorously different from what Senator McCain has said. I talked to Phyllis
Schlafly about that the other day and she said, `Yeah, we're delighted. You
know, the Bush campaign always fought us tooth and nail when we tried to make
the platform more conservative, and McCain really let us have our way. We're
hoping that he catches up with it.' So that's their perspective.

GROSS: So Senator McCain is now kind of in alignment with the Christian
conservatives, but I'm not sure that they see him as one of them. I mean,
President Bush has made his faith a central part of his public life. He talks
about it. He's made a point of talking about it. And for John McCain it
hasn't been that way. He hasn't been somebody who's publicly talked a lot
about faith, although he did start talking about it in a more public way at
the Saddleback forum that Rick Warren moderated. But do you know if the
Christian conservative leaders care whether John McCain is a person of deep
faith, and whether his faith coincides with their faith or not?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, they--I think people certainly care. I mean, I
think, frankly, the number of Americans who notice whether a politician has a
faith that resembles theirs or any faith at all is very, very large. And no
doubt about it, John McCain is very bad at talking about his own faith. He
has two stories that he brings up every time he's asked about religion, and as
several Christian conservatives have pointed out to me, neither of them is
about his own faith. They're both about acts of religious faith that he
witnessed when he was a POW in Vietnam. And they're moving stories. You
know, the most famous one is about watching one of his Vietnamese guards draw
a cross in the sand when he was in captivity on Christmas Day in North
Vietnam. And that's a terrific story, but he's not the faithful person in
that story. So his efforts, when he does try to talk about his faith--and I
think he brought that one up at Saddleback--his efforts when he does try to
talk about his faith really do leave a lot of Christian conservatives cold.
And that's one reason why, until recently, they were at best lukewarm about
him.

But what's happened is, you know, where President Bush had a genuine faith
story and a faith history that he could rely on to connect with people,
Senator McCain, in lieu of that, has had to speak more clearly and more
forcefully about what he would do in office. His pro-life rhetoric has been,
as I say, a little bit clearer, even, and his commitments a little bit
stronger, than President Bush's were. And I think that's why you're seeing
people--with the concrete evidence of the Palin pick, you're seeing people
really turn around and get behind him.

I guess I should note that he's not 100 percent in line with what you would
consider to be the goals of the Christian conservative movement. I mean, he
supports state amendments to block same-sex marriage, but not a federal
amendment. And he supports federal funding for stem cell research, which is,
you know, fading as an issue as the research moves towards adult stem cells,
but is certainly an area of difference between him and a lot of Christian
conservative leaders.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's a
political reporter for The New York Times. He's been covering the campaign.
Over the past few months he's written a series of biographical profiles of
John McCain, and right now he's covering the Republican convention and is
speaking to us from St. Paul. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll
talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's a political reporter for The New
York Times. During the 2004 presidential campaign, he covered the Christian
conservative movement. He's now lately been writing a series of biographical
portraits of John McCain, and he's currently in the Twin Cities covering the
Republican convention.

You write about how John McCain has always been kind of a little at war with
himself, that there's been a conflict between his ambition and his ideals.
Would you elaborate on that for us?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: One of the striking things about Senator McCain's career as
a politician is his habit of apology. He started this campaign, the general
election, by going to Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot, and
making an apology to a group of African-Americans for having failed to support
a national holiday for Dr. King. At the beginning of the 2000 campaign, when
he first ran for president, you know, he started out calling for a more
ennobling kind of campaign discourse that would turn away from sort of
scurrilous attacks on each other, what he referred to as politics as a
spectacle of selfish ambition. At the same time he was passing out a handout
at the back of the room making just such allegations about then-Governor
George Bush's tax plan. So he apologized right then, right there that day.
And later on, he apologized for attacking President Bush too vigorously in
South Carolina in response to what he thought were Bush attacks. And then
afterwards he flew back to South Carolina, he apologized for failing to come
out against the use of the Confederate flag. You almost never see a
politician criticize him or herself as often and as successfully as Senator
McCain has.

And what I think that's about, what a lot of people around him think that's
about, is his own struggle to try to reconcile his quite eager ambition for
his own success, his own real determination to make his mark on history, on
the one hand; and a genuine commitment to try to live up to a standard of
honor on the other. And he wrestles with that. And I imagine a lot of great
politicians have wrestled with that. But he does it in public. He makes a
real show of it. It's sort of hard to wrap one's head around how much mileage
he's gotten in this campaign out of his support for positions which he says
are unpopular. You know, he really--it's a badge of honor to him that when
the American people wanted to get the troops home from Iraq, he said no. It's
a badge of honor to him that he was running for the Republican presidential
nomination and the party clearly did not want to support a guest worker
program that would allow more immigrants in, and he stuck to his guns. It's
an unusual thing to see a politician who has made the unpopularity of their
own views a cornerstone of their pitch to the public. And I think what
explains that is this kind of dialectic between his desire to get elected and
his desire to do something bigger than just getting elected.

GROSS: Do you see his new alliance with Christian conservatives as fitting
into your description of his public dialect between his ambition and his
ideals?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, yes and no. I mean, to really understand the history
of it, you've got to look back at the 2000 campaign, because that's when he
really squared off against the Christian conservative movement. And our
recollection of that has been a little bit enhanced by nostalgia. You know,
in memory, we all recall--or those who follow these things--recall him
delivering a speech in Virginia after the South Carolina primary denouncing
Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as agents of intolerance. If you look back,
he did denounce them as agents of intolerance, but he also went out of his way
to praise Dr. James Dobson and Chuck Colson and others, and to reiterate that
he was staunchly pro-life. So what he thought he was doing at that time was
trying to reach over the heads of a few of those Christian conservative
leaders to get to their roots. They didn't take it that way, and history
hasn't remembered it that way, and he's been kind of riding since then on this
mythology of himself as somebody who ran against the grain of his own party
and blocked its conservative base, even the Christian part.

So now we're surprised when he turns around and tries to make friends with Dr.
Dobson and others. But if you look closely, he's sort of been always of two
minds about that. You know, he was never really against them in the first
place on the question of abortion; so, you know, you could arguably say he's
not really doubling back. On the other hand, you know, back in 2000, when he
found it expedient to be campaigning as the moderate against a conservative,
George W. Bush, he did also call for a broadening of the Republican Party
platform so that it would be more open to, for example, abortions in cases of
rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother. Whether he did that then
out of principle or expediency, I don't know. Whether he has reversed himself
on that now because of principle or expediency, I don't know.

GROSS: Well, in terms of having an example of what you were talking about
before, about how you think he's used public apology for past problems to
great advantage, would Charles Keating and the Keating Five scandal be an
example of that?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. I think that's the first and most important example
of that. I mean, you know, when the scandal broke, right? Five senators on
behalf of their patron, Charles Keating, this corrupt financier, met with
banking regulators. Then the scandal breaks. Four of them keep their mouth
shuts, they bunker down. One of them goes out and talks to everybody he can.
He gives a marathon press conference at home in Phoenix, Senator McCain. He's
on every talk show he can find talking and talking and talking about what went
on there. And his message is, you know, `I am very sorry. I have exercised
poor judgment, horrible judgment, judgment I am really repentant about. But
that's it. I didn't break any laws.'

And what he learned was that this kind of confessional style worked out well
for him. And in some ways, he's been doing it ever since. I mean, that's
when he adopted a kind of open to a fault public persona, you know, of letting
the press in, of letting it all out, and he discovered that being his own
fiercest critic could really be quite winning. What's more, he made his sort
of contrition over that error of judgment the cause of the rest of his career.
I mean, that was the birth of his passion for campaign finance reform.

GROSS: Right. And so he kind of followed through on the apology and pushed
through legislation that reformed campaign finance.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that's right. He not only apologized, but he kept on
apologizing. He kept citing his misjudgment in the Keating affair as evidence
for why all of Congress ought to pass laws to curb the influence of that kind
of political patron.

GROSS: John McCain has been running as a maverick, and he's introduced his
running mate, Sarah Palin, as a maverick. The word "maverick" is heard over
and over again.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, can I tell you a funny story about that?

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: You know, I started covering politics in the last eight
years, and so I always thought John McCain equals maverick. I recently
discovered that at the start of the 2000 presidential election in early '99,
when the primaries were first heating up, that Representative John Kasich from
Ohio was the maverick in the Republican Party. There were long profiles of
maverick John Kasich of Ohio. `Is he going to shake up the Republican Party?'
It wasn't until things really got into full swing in late '99 and early 2000
that for the first time McCain started to become the maverick. You can't find
the term maverick used next to the name John McCain until 1998 at the very
earliest, when after, you know, 15 years in politics, he happened to have
pushed through, or tried to push through a piece of bipartisan tobacco
legislation. So it's funny that we now think, you know, McCain, he's always
been a maverick, that's maverick John McCain. It's a relatively recent
coinage.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if you think his new alliance with the Christian
conservative movement affects his image one way or another as a, quote,
"maverick"?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: It can't help. I mean, smart Republican politicians,
including Karl Rove and President George W. Bush, have for decades tried to
be quiet about the way that they courted the conservative base of their party.
I mean, smart Democrats do the same thing in reverse. So at the 2004
convention, I happened to stumble in to a kind of private, off the schedule
rally that they had organized for evangelical conservatives who were there,
where they, you know, they fired up the crowd with a lot of talk about banning
abortion in very vivid ways, and about stamping out same-sex marriage and so
on and so forth, stuff that you hear nary a word of from the main platform.

The McCain campaign can't do it that way. They don't have the reservoir of
goodwill going into the race that President Bush had with that constituency,
they didn't lock up the nomination early enough, and they weren't that well
organized. So you're hearing a lot more stuff close to that from the mouth of
the candidate and from his surrogates quite publicly. You know, this
convention, it's pretty much all out in the open. And the changes in the
platform that make it so much more conservative speak to that.

So will he pay a price for that with moderate voters? Will moderate voters
who are queasy about banning all abortion or don't even like talk of abortion
that much, will they take note of the enthusiasm of the conservative movement
over Sarah Palin? Sure. And I think the McCain campaign has got to recognize
that with certain voters they're going to pay a price for that. But I assume
their calculus is that it will pay off in terms of enthusiasm of a part of
their party that they really need.

GROSS: David Kirkpatrick will be back with us in the second half of the show.
He's a political correspondent for The New York Times and has written a series
of articles profiling John McCain. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with New York Times
political correspondent David Kirkpatrick. He's written a series of articles
profiling John McCain. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Kirkpatrick
covered the Christian conservative movement. This week he's reporting from
the Republican convention, where McCain will accept his party's nomination
tonight.

Among the things you've written about is the experiences John McCain had as a
prisoner of war and how it affected him as a person, and how it affected his
views on foreign policy and how to wage a war. Did you learn anything about
his experiences as a prisoner of war that he hasn't spoken about himself?
Because I believe you've spoken to other people who were prisoners of war in
North Vietnam at the same time that he was.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yes. I've talked to a number of his fellow POWs, and most
interestingly, to me, I got a hold of a paper that Senator McCain wrote right
after he got back from Vietnam. He went to the National War College, which is
a kind of a training program for officers who are likely to be admirals or
generals. And it wasn't that rigorous a program at that time, but you did
some kind of an independent study. You wrote some sort of paper that had
policy relevance. And he, for years, has described that paper as his effort
to take stock of the lessons of America's experience in Vietnam. So I was
eager to get a hold of it; and when I did get a hold of it, it turned out to
be a little bit different than that. It's a reflection on his own experience
as a POW, and it tries to draw out of the POW experience lessons for how the
military should handle POWs and how the military ought to look at public
opinion. And it's got some provocative stuff in there. So this is Senator
McCain, fresh back from the war, taking his first cut at making sense of what
happened in Vietnam and at what happened during those five and a half years
when his only sense of American history come over prison loudspeakers.

And the conclusions he reaches are basically twofold. The first is, he faults
America's civilian leadership for dropping the ball on the war, for failing to
follow through forcefully enough, for abandoning a kind of win/lose model of
war for a negotiated peace, which he feels was a betrayal of the troops, lost
the war, and damaged America's credibility. So...

GROSS: Can I just add in here...

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah.

GROSS: ...he also says, from what you've reported, that by not just out and
out winning the war, the prisoners of war like himself became pawns in the
strategy.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: That's right. He writes in this paper that--and he's not
the first to do this. Admiral Stockdale, who was the top commanding officer
of the POWs over there, also said the same thing. McCain writes in this paper
that the prisoners became soldiers on a different battlefront, the propaganda
battlefront. Because the North Vietnamese were trying to use them to win over
world support and demoralize the American public. You know, they would try to
use the POWs to win sympathy for their cause, try to get the POWs to sign
bogus confession statements, and also trying to sort of use them as hostages.
You know, say make the American people feel bad for these poor prisoners over
here and want to end the war to bring the prisoners home.

And so the POWs were knocking themselves out. They were going through
extraordinary hardship and torture and suffering to avoid giving their North
Vietnamese captors these propaganda victories and the gratifications of
getting, you know, a videotaped confession or a signed confession. No matter
how ludicrous it was, they had deep internal debates over whether or not to
bow, as the North Vietnamese requested, when the North Vietnamese walked by.
I mean, they were really knocking themselves out to avoid delivering this
propaganda victory to the North Vietnamese. Then he comes home, and he finds
that despite--they all found, really--that despite their efforts, American
public opinion had long ago turned against the war.

And in Senator McCain's view, the Johnson administration didn't step up to the
plate in that context. The Johnson administration didn't really enter that
propaganda battle. The Johnson administration did not lead the country, but
rather watched silently as public opinion turned away from the war, didn't
rally the American public around the necessity of not just ending the war, but
truly defeating the North Vietnamese. And so there's a sense of betrayal
there on the part of Senator McCain, and I think a lot of these other POWs.

And the two takeaways in his paper for the war college, and I think in his
current thinking about foreign conflicts, are, one, if you start something,
you should finish it. But two, a real hyper-attentiveness to the role of
American public opinion. You can see in that paper that he wrote right after
he returned from Vietnam, and in a lot of his statements about foreign
interventions over the years--whether in Lebanon or Latin America or Grenada
or the Balkans or Iraq--a real concern with what is the depth of the American
public support for this, because he doesn't want to see US troops abroad
without deep support at home.

GROSS: Now, you talked about how the POWs who were in this horrible position
because the North Vietnamese wanted to extract these phony confessions from
them that they could use for propaganda reasons, and the POWs had to suffer
through terrible torture while refusing to give these bogus confessions. And,
you know, McCain suffered through a lot of that. He suffered through years of
that. But there was one time that you write about when he signed one of those
bogus confessions. This was, you say, after like four days in which his
captors tied him with ropes, beat him every few hours, re-broke an arm that
was broken when he crash landed, and left him in a pool of his own blood and
refuse. Has he written or talked about that experience and why he signed, and
how it did or didn't change his experience as a prisoner of war?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yes, he's written about it with his co-author, Mark Salter,
very movingly in his first memoir, "Faith of My Fathers." He writes with
really relative restraint about the extraordinary suffering he went through,
and then talks about the deep sense of shame that he felt at having signed
this confession, and at his fear that it would come to the attention of his
father, Admiral John S. McCain II, who was then commander of US forces in the
Pacific. He writes that, in the aftermath of having signed that confession,
he found some relief from his own shame in provoking his captors to beat him
again. And his fellow POWs say the same thing, that he was a tough resistor.
I mean, a number of them were tough resistors. But he was somebody who would
cuss and jeer at the North Vietnamese when they would walk by his cell. He
went out of his way after that to provoke fights with his captors that could
only end in more suffering for him, in part I think as a kind of penance for
having signed that confession.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's a
political reporter for The New York Times. He's been covering the campaign.
Over the past few months he's written a series of biographical profiles of
John McCain. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's a political reporter for The New
York Times, and he's been writing a series of biographical portraits of John
McCain.

One of the beliefs he came away with from Vietnam was that soldiers who are
fighting a war should understand the policy behind the war. They should
understand all the reasons why their government is in this war. And you write
that that's actually a controversial position to have. I mean, what was it,
explicitly, that he was suggesting the government do or that the military do
to inform soldiers? And why is that controversial?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: One of the interesting things about former POWs in Vietnam
is they talk very little about the handful of POWs who were collaborators.
They generally don't want to mar the portrait of heroism that is associated
with the American captives in North Vietnam, which is a lot of them and a lot
of other people regard as one of the redeeming elements of the conflict in
North Vietnam, which was so horrible in so many ways. So you don't hear them
talk publicly, and you almost never hear Senator McCain talk publicly about
the collaborators. But in this paper that he wrote for the war college, he
focuses specifically on those collaborators and why they didn't uphold the
code of conduct, why they willingly signed confessions, recorded radio
broadcasts, worked with the North Vietnamese to gain a little bit better
treatment for themselves.

And it's a preoccupation, clearly from reading his paper, and a source of some
anger, understandably. And he blames the administration and the military in
general for failing to inculcate in its fighting men and women a real
understanding of the whys and hows of American foreign policy. He says at one
point, you know, `The charge of the Light Brigade is over. You know, ours is
not to reason why, ours is but to do or die. Anymore, you've got to give
these people a thorough understanding of why they're fighting and what
America's goals and role in the world is.

Now, that makes a lot of military officers a little queasy, because he goes on
from there to suggest that there ought to be some kind of an indoctrination
program for enlistees, for people entering the military, especially the ones
who are not trained as officers and who don't have much educational
background. And that's troubling because, you know, a lot of officers now, if
you say that to them, they say, `Well, now, wait a second. Are you going to
indoctrinate these recruits into Reagan foreign policy, Clinton foreign
policy, Bush foreign policy?' You know, it very quickly becomes a political
question. You know, whether Senator McCain would still stand by that today, I
don't know. That may have just been the heat of the moment, having returned
from Vietnam.

GROSS: So when you look at John McCain's paper about Vietnam, which he wrote
about a year after coming back to the United States, a year after his
captivity, what are some of the connections you see between the conclusions he
reached about Vietnam and the positions that he's taken on the war in Iraq?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, the first obvious one is, he took from the Vietnam
experience the conclusion that, if you're going to get into a war, you better
win. He's often said that, you know, any hint of weakness, any hint of
impatience with the conclusion of a war is just going to embolden your enemies
and prolong the conflict. I think he clearly felt that if the Johnson
administration had deployed more decisive force earlier on, that war wouldn't
have gone on for nine years and it wouldn't have been an embarrassment to the
United States. So finish what you start. And war should be an all-or-nothing
affair. If you're not willing to commit the requisite force, don't get
involved.

But at the same time, his preoccupation with the management of public opinion
can't help but remind a contemporary reader of the statements that the Bush
administration, and also Senator McCain, made during the runup to the Iraq
war, the really, in retrospect, quite strenuous efforts by the Bush
administration to convince the American people that taking out Saddam Hussein
was a genuine subject of American interest. You know, looking back on it, of
course, it's one of those sort of overargued points. I mean, it's he has
weapons of mass destruction, he's abetting foreign terrorists, he's a threat
to his own people, he's been defying UN resolutions. There were so many
different cases made; and if you go back and read his reflections on what
happened to American public opinion during the Vietnam war, it's hard not to
think about them in the light of the statements that the Bush administration
made, and Senator McCain himself made, trying to firm up the American will to
take out what they considered to be a threatening dictator in Iraq.

GROSS: You know, another conclusion you say that he reached after Vietnam is
that you need military power to set the stage for negotiations. Would you
talk about that?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. Senator McCain comes from a long line of military
officers. Members of his family have fought in every American war since 1776.
So the use of force, and questions about the use of force, come naturally to
him. I think more naturally than questions about diplomacy. What he took
away from Vietnam in addition to that was, when the Johnson administration
called off the bombing as a gesture of good faith to try to negotiate with the
North Vietnamese, it emboldened the North Vietnamese and the negotiations
dragged on. When the Nixon administration redoubled the bombing, the North
Vietnamese came to the bargaining table, and that ended the war. So for him,
use of force is the way to put some muscle into your negotiating power, and
diplomacy without force is next to useless. And that comes through in his
remarks quite often. A year ago he told the National Review, speaking about
the European powers, he said, `Well, if I were as weak as the Europeans are,
I'd be a lot more diplomatically inclined.' So clearly he sees military force
and the exercise of military force setting the table for any diplomatic talks,
setting the sort of terms under which any kind of diplomatic negotiations are
going to take place.

GROSS: Is this a widely held opinion that it was Nixon's increase in bombing
in Vietnam that led to the end of the war?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: I think everything about the Vietnam War is controversial.
I mean, it's a real Rorschach test. Senator McCain does not, in his analysis,
focus much on whether or not America should have been fighting that war.
There's another school of thought that emphasizes that this was a conflict
America was never going to have the public opinion or the commitment to win
because it was truly ancillary to our interests; and so what the Nixon
administration did was find a way out. Senator McCain doesn't see it that way
and doesn't focus on those sides of the questions.

GROSS: You write that Senator McCain's response to September 11th offers an
outline of his views on how to handle foreign policy. What did he advocate
right after the attack?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: You know, it was striking to look back at Senator McCain's
role in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. It's hard to remember now
what an important figure he was. Because of his history as a straight talker,
and because of his role in the Vietnam War, everybody wanted to interview
Senator McCain. I think he may even have been on your show at that time. He
was on all the networks. He was hopscotching across the Sunday interview
shows. He was doing the late night comedy shows when they came back on the
air after September 11th. And much more quickly than a lot of people, his
mind turned to Iraq. Right away, you know, September 12th, he was saying, `We
need to adopt a much more muscular posture towards rogue states, towards Iraq,
Iran, Syria and others.' But within two weeks, he was talking specifically
about Iraq. Within a few months, by I think January 6th, he was on a aircraft
carrier in the Arabian Sea saying to a group of American servicemen and women,
`Next stop, Baghdad.' So he was far ahead of the Bush administration in his
conviction that the events of September 11th really made it intolerable to the
US to have Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

GROSS: At least he was far ahead in speaking about it publicly.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. Although I think, you know, the best histories of
that period suggest that there was at least some debate in the White House. I
mean, we're talking about the first three months after 9/11. I mean, most
people in the White House were still thinking about Afghanistan. I mean,
there may have been some people, like Richard Perle, you know, around the
administration who were turning their attention towards Iraq, but Senator
McCain really was ahead of the curve. You know? And if you look back over
his comments, as early as 1998, during the Clinton administration, he was one
of the sponsors of the Iraq Liberation Act, which endorsed the idea of
removing Saddam Hussein from power. So he was clearly inclined that way
beforehand; but that time, you know, when he was asked publicly about, `Well,
what do you think about sending troops over there?' he was completely
dismissive. He just said, `No, there's no way. You could never convince the
American people of that. You're talking about American men and women risking
their lives. Do we want to be doing that to protect the Iraqi people and
others? There's no way. Airstrikes are the way to go.'

And September 11th changed that, and it changed it fast. Long before all the
rounds of debate--that I'm sure you remember about where are the weapons
inspectors, are they being let back in, what do we know, what's the latest
intelligence--he really focused on the necessity of taking out Saddam Hussein,
the impossibility of continuing to tolerate Saddam Hussein after the threat
that we had seen at 9/11. And a big part of his thinking at that time was
about America's credibility, was about deterrence. We have a kind of unusual
record of his thinking in time, because he was interviewed so often and there
are transcripts of those events. So you can trace the steps of his statements
right after the attacks; and his thoughts immediately turned to sending a
signal to other potential terrorists, other states that might abet terrorism
around the world. `Take out Afghanistan, but is that enough of a statement?
Not necessarily. We really need to show the Mideast that we mean business.
We need to take out Saddam Hussein in Iraq because that will have a deterrent
effect on Syria, on Libya, on Iran, on North Korea, on other people who might
think, "Let's mess with the United States."'

It's worth considering for a minute whether or not that's played out in fact.
I think a lot of Democrats would say, `Well, you know, it turns out that
acting against Saddam Hussein didn't really help us in terms of combatting
supporters of terrorism in Iran or Afghanistan; it actually just tied our
hands and preoccupied us.' So I just thought that's a question that deserves a
little bit more discussion.

GROSS: From what you know of John McCain, does he still think that going to
war with Iraq was the right thing to do and was productive in the war against
terrorism?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, he's said several times. I mean, I think he regrets
the fact that the war was sold to the American public as a fight against
weapons of mass destruction. In one of his books, he's written that that
failure of intelligence led the American occupiers to be preoccupied with
finding those weapons of mass destruction when they should've been preoccupied
with settling the country and establishing control over it. And that's had
tragic consequences. But he stands by the importance of eliminating the
threat that Saddam Hussein posed, not just at the time but also in the future.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's a
political reporter for The New York Times. He's been covering the campaign.
Over the past few months, he's written a series of biographical profiles of
John McCain, and right now he's covering the Republican convention and is
speaking to us from St. Paul. Let's take a short break here and then we'll
talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick. He's a political reporter for The New
York Times, and he's been writing a series of biographical portraits of John
McCain.

Your colleague at The New York Times Matt Bai a couple of months ago wrote New
York Times magazine cover story about McCain and his foreign policy. And one
of the points he made in that article was that there'd been this kind of sense
of fellowship between the senators who are veterans of the Vietnam War, but
one of the places that some of them parted company with McCain on was that
some of the other senators who'd been in Vietnam, they weren't prisoners of
war, they were on the ground fighting the war. And some of them--Kerry would
be a good example--felt that the government wasn't handling the war very well,
that there were mistakes being made in the military and the civilian
leadership, and that, you know, the soldiers were paying a price for that.
And some of the senators felt that McCain wasn't really aware of those
mistakes because he was being held prisoner of war. He was isolated, he was
in solitary confinement for two years. So those problems were like out of his
view. I'm wondering if you've looked into that at all, and if you have
anything you can tell us about that.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, one runs into that difference of opinion right away
when you start reporting about the former POWs. The thing about the POWs is,
by and large, they were pilots, they were airmen. So their orientation is
towards bombing and the air war. So they didn't really confront the suffering
or the gore on the ground in the way that Senator Kerry or Senator Chuck Hagel
might have done. So they didn't see the same carnage, and they didn't see the
moral ambiguities of the war in quite the same way. They saw the war through
the fulcrum of air power.

You know, the question for Senator McCain and his fellow pilots locked up in
Hanoi was, `When is the Johnson administration going to resume the bombing?'
You know, he writes very movingly of the incredible relief--I mean, it
sounded, as he put it, like an old friend when they once again heard bombs
falling over Hanoi, even though they knew there was some personal risk to
their own lives, because the pilots, being pilots, being oriented towards
dropping bombs, felt like this was the way to bring the war to a close. So
it's true, he was locked up, he didn't see the gore on the ground in Vietnam,
and he also didn't see the turn in American public opinion.

You know, Senator John Warner, who at that time was secretary of the Navy, is
a good friend of Senator McCain and of his father, and he takes a very
different tone towards the war in Iraq, in part because he was at home and
watching the protests on the streets in Washington. He's talked to me about
what it was like when he and Secretary of Defense Mel Laird snuck out under
cover to look at one of those protests filling the mall, and they went back to
their office and they just thought, `This is it. We're sunk. We can't, you
know, the American people have turned against us. We can't carry it on.' So
he doesn't quite have the same, you know, got to win it all costs tone that
Senator McCain does. And I think that's got to go back to the perspective
that Senator McCain had as a POW in Vietnam on the way the war was playing
out.

GROSS: Do you think John McCain's strategy is something of a gamble? In
order to get the coalitions and the support that he thinks he needs to win,
he's changed his position on some things, for example, to get a strong backing
from Christian conservatives. If he loses the race, does he risk looking like
someone who sold out his values and who's changed his legacy in an attempt to
get elected?

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, he risks that. But you know what? Looking back from
McCain's history, it turns out that how you're remembered is a little bit
beyond your control. You know, right now it's widely perceived that Senator
McCain was a maverick and has sold out to the base of his party. And to a
certain extent that's true in that he was running as an outsider, changing the
party, and he is now its standard bearer. But you know what? If you actually
look at the number of issues where he has reversed position, there aren't that
many. He did oppose President Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, probably, in
my view, as much out of leftover animosity from the 2000 campaign as general
principled opposition to those tax cuts. So he's reversed himself on the tax
cuts for sure, how he approaches those. And he now embraces those. And he's
reversed himself on the Republican Party platform. He, in 2000, called for
changing its position to allow some flexibility on abortion; now he's allowed
conservatives to write the platform any way they like.

There aren't that many other cases where he's reversed himself. He never
really squared off against the Christian right, so it's not really a reversal
for him to embrace the Christian right now. So, yes, I guess I do feel like
he may go down in history as a maverick who sold out. On the other hand, he
was never that much of a maverick in the first place, and he hasn't done that
much selling out. So I think his calculus is probably, `I'd like to win, and
I'll worry about the rest later.'

GROSS: David Kirkpatrick, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. KIRKPATRICK: It's a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: David Kirkpatrick is a political correspondent for The New York Times
and has written a series of articles profiling John McCain. This week
Kirkpatrick is reporting from the Republican convention, where McCain will
accept his party's nomination tonight.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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