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Shaping Character and Destinies: John McCain

In his new book, Character Is Destiny Sen. John McCain passes along the stories of heroes — both famous and obscure — whose values exemplify the best of the human spirit.

43:11

Other segments from the episode on December 6, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 6, 2005: Interview with John McCain; Review of Madonna's album "Confessions on a dance floor."

Transcript

DATE December 6, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Senator John McCain discusses his new book, "Character
Is Destiny"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is John McCain. The Republican senator from Arizona ran against
George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican primary. He's considering running for
president again in 2008 but says he won't decide until after the midterm
elections next year. We've also invited Joe Biden, Democratic senator of
Delaware, to talk with us. Biden, too, is considering running in the next
presidential election. We expect to schedule that interview sometime soon.

I recorded my interview with Senator McCain yesterday. Before we got to some
of the issues of the day, I asked about his new book, "Character Is Destiny."
It's a collection of profiles of people whose lives he thinks adults and
children will find inspiring.

Senator McCain, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In your book "Character Is
Destiny," you talk a little about your own life, and you tell a great story
about your mother's objections to the language you once used to describe your
experiences as a prisoner of war. Would you tell us that story?

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): My mother is now 93. I think she
was 90 at the time that an excerpt from the first book that Mark Salter and I
wrote called "Faith of My Fathers" was excerpted in a magazine in Washington.
And one of the excerpts that was printed in the magazine was that I was--when
I was in prison in Hanoi, I--when being taken from one cell to another, I
would yell obscenities at the guards to try to help the morale of my fellow
prisoners, who might be listening. We were not allowed to communicate with
each other. And so some of those obscenities were printed in this excerpt and
in the book. And my mother called, and so I answered the phone, and she said,
`Johnny.' And I said, `Yes, Mother.' She said, `I just read the excerpts
from your book in the magazine.' I said, `Well, what'd you think?' And she
said, `Well, I'm coming over there, and I'm going to wash your mouth out with
soap.' I said, `Mom, these were bad people. They were hurting me and my
friends. They were very bad people.' She said, `That's no excuse. Under no
circumstances did I ever teach you to use language like that.' (Laughs)

GROSS: So what's the moral of that story, in your mind?

Sen. McCAIN: The moral of the story is you should always pay attention to
your mother and certainly never write something that she might read that you
might not want her to.

GROSS: Yeah, but obviously she was wrong because there is a place for
obscenity.

Sen. McCAIN: Yeah.

GROSS: And that would be the place for it--is when you're...

Sen. McCAIN: I think so.

GROSS: ...people are carrying you away to torture you. That would be the
place for obscenity.

Sen. McCAIN: But, you know, my mom is--again, she grew up in an age where
ladies and gentlemen never used that kind of language anywhere, as she said,
under any circumstances. But she's a wonderful woman. She drives herself
everywhere. She drove herself across country last Christmas, and I had to
alert the local law enforcement agencies along the way. But she's in great
shape. And she pays very close attention to my activities, watches my
appearances on television and radio. And in Washington, quite often, I take
her to various functions that I go to, and she's always the hit of the
evening.

GROSS: Well, your book is called "Character Is Destiny," and, of course, one
of the things that formed your character was being a prisoner of war for five
and a half years in Vietnam. And you have introduced an amendment to the
defense appropriation bill that the Senate has voted to support, but
President Bush has said he will veto it if it passes in the House. This would
prohibit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment in the US interrogations that
happen outside of the US. Would you explain what you see as the need for
this bill?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, first, can I mention about my character being formed by
being in prison? I don't think my character was formed in prison. I think it
was formed before that. But what I think it made me realize, very frankly, in
prison--that I was dependent on others. It was my friends and comrades that
picked me up when I was down and literally saved my life. And I always
thought that I would be able to do everything for myself, and I found that I
was very much dependent upon my comrades, who were my source of strength. And
in a couple of cases a couple guys, who took care of me when I was first
prisoner and--they literally saved my life.

We have a very bad image problem in the world--some of it deserved, some of it
undeserved--that we are mistreating, torturing, treating inhumanely or cruelly
people that we hold captive. And Abu Ghraib pictures were shown on
Al-Jazeera, as we all know, 24-7, and it hurt us in our efforts in Iraq and it
hurts us around the world.

Any information that can be gained by torture is, one, not reliable; two,
torture is not effective; and three--well, let me just--if I could sum up,
there's a great hero of mine; his name is General Jack Vessey. A lot of
Americans may not remember him. He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
got a battlefield commission. He was a private at the landing at Salerno in
Italy and fought in many wars. He served in the Army for 46 years. And I saw
him recently out in Minnesota at a dinner that benefited Iraqi veterans and
their families. And I said, `General, what do you think about this issue?'
And he said, `Any information that could be gained as a result of cruel,
inhumane treatment or torture could never counterbalance the damage that is
done to the United States of America when we do these things.' And I think he
put it as well as anybody I've ever heard.

GROSS: Now you've said that when you were tortured in North Vietnam, that you
named names; you named the names of ball players.

Sen. McCAIN: Yeah, the starting lineup of the Green Bay Packers, yeah.

GROSS: So did that stop the torture? I mean, you gave them names. They were
totally inappropriate names, what they were looking for...

Sen. McCAIN: Mainly what--yeah.

GROSS: ...but do the...

Sen. McCAIN: For a while. For a while, yeah. But mainly what they wanted is
what you can get out of torture. Mainly what they wanted was to get war
crimes confessions, statements criticizing your country, those kinds of
things. It all started, really, as a science back in the Bolshevik days when
they would have the show trials, where these people would literally condemn
themselves to death in Soviet Russia and confess to crimes that they couldn't
possibly have committed because they'd been tortured to the point where they'd
do anything to relieve the pain. You see my point?

And, by the way, there is one case published in the media that an al-Qaeda
individual was captured and gave information about weapons of mass
destruction, which found itself into speeches given by the administration and,
I think, the president. It turned out later on the guy recanted, you see. So
it's not that useful, and psychological methodology is far more effective.
The Israelis have been prohibited from using torture by their Supreme Court.
They use psychological methods.

GROSS: So you don't trust the information that is extracted under torture.

Sen. McCAIN: I don't trust it.

GROSS: You didn't give accurate information...

Sen. McCAIN: No, I don't.

GROSS: ...and you don't trust others would.

Sen. McCAIN: No, I don't trust it, but most importantly, let's just--Terry,
let's pose it. One out of a million cases that this was one of these things
where you really had the hot smoking gun and you could torture this
person--well, that occasion may arise, and then you have to do what you have
to do. But what this has morphed into, apparently from published reports--and
I have no secret information. I am not on any of the intelligence committees
or anything like that. But according to The Washington Post, we now have
prisons in what used to be Eastern Europe. And that's not right. You know,
we don't want to do that kind of thing. So I hope that we can get it
resolved.

GROSS: Well, Condoleezza Rice...

Sen. McCAIN: Go ahead.

GROSS: ...Condoleezza Rice said this week about those prisons--she was
criticizing the European critics of these prisons. And she said they should
know that these interrogations of suspects have helped save European lives,
the interrogations of suspects in these secret prisons in former Soviet bloc
countries.

Sen. McCAIN: Well, that may be the case. I do not know because I don't have
the kind of information she does. I'd be interested in how that happened.
But I have to go back again to General Vessey's statement that any information
that is gained cannot possibly counterbalance the damage that's done to
American image. We're in two wars; we're in a military war in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and we're in a war with the enemy on the battle of ideals and
ideas. And we have to be better in something different than these people who
are bent on our destruction.

GROSS: You've said that you--you know, one of the practices that is being
examined here is waterboarding, in which the interrogator basically pours
water into the nose and mouth of the person being interrogated, and that
person thinks that they are drowning.

Sen. McCAIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Although they will be rescued from drowning by the interrogator, the
person being interrogated doesn't know that. You've said that anything that
makes it seem like you are on the verge of getting executed is torture. Do
you know that from experience? Were you in that position?

Sen. McCAIN: No, I was never--that never happened to me, but I know of enough
cases where people have believed that they were going to be killed or
executed; that it has tremendous--any person who's well-versed in the mental
impacts of something like that will tell you how damaging that can be. As I
said, most people--a beating is far preferable than a mock execution.

GROSS: Now I understand that Vice President Cheney has tried to talk you into
withdrawing this amendment from the bill. And how? What does he do to try to
convince you?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, it's well-known that publicly Vice President Cheney has
said that he objects to this, and he feels that it would impair our ability to
gather valuable information. We just have a difference of opinion on it. I
respect him. We've been friends for 25 years, and he's a patriot and believes
in this nation's security as much as I do. We just have a difference of
opinion.

GROSS: Do you think that President Bush will veto the bill if it passes the
House--will veto...

Sen. McCAIN: I hope...

GROSS: ...the bill because of your amendment?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I hope not. We're still in discussions. They had several
discussions with Mr. Hadley, the president's national security adviser, and I
hope that we could work out some accommodation that would preserve the
fundamentals of the amendment or perhaps make the language more palatable in
some respects. We're working on it.

GROSS: I just heard a hum in the background. Is that a plane going by?

Sen. McCAIN: Yes.

GROSS: Yes.

Sen. McCAIN: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Great. I'll just wait till it goes.

Sen. McCAIN: OK.

GROSS: It's going real slowly, isn't it?

Sen. McCAIN: It may be a helicopter coming--a black helicopter coming to
assassinate me because--that way we can keep--as a dedicated watcher of "24,"
you never know what can happen because, see, they could kill two birds with
one stone by wiping out National Public Radio as well as a political enemy,
you see, so it'd be hard to resist this target.

GROSS: This is a dark plot, indeed. I think we are nearly safe now. That
plane sounds in the distance.

Sen. McCAIN: All right. Phew. Thank God.

GROSS: Well, we'll hear more of the interview I recorded yesterday with
Senator John McCain after a break. His new book is called "Character Is
Destiny." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Senator John McCain, and he has a new book called
"Character Is Destiny."

Now since we've been talking a little bit about, you know, your experiences as
a prisoner of war in Vietnam and how that applies to your thoughts about
torture, there's another Vietnam question I'd like to ask you. The National
Security Agency recently released hundreds of pages of formerly secret
documents on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. And this was the incident
which we were told that the North Vietnamese fired on our boats in the Gulf of
Tonkin. And as a result of this President Johnson authorized airs strikes, and
Congress passed a resolution authorizing military action based on the Gulf of
Tonkin. Now these new documents that were released show that we weren't--our
boats really weren't fired on. The Gulf of Tonkin incident never really
happened, but information was distorted to make it seem as if it did. As a
veteran, what's your reaction to this?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, it's not as exciting as you think, in my view, because
we've known for a long time that there were questions about the Gulf of Tonkin
"incident," unquote. There have speculation about it for a long time. And
the more important aspect of this, Terry, is that the firing--supposed that it
did happen, the--still, is that enough rationale to escalate the conflict to
the point where there's 500,000 people there and a full-scale military
engagement, with 58,000 killed, without Congress revisiting the issue? It
seems to me that what you really saw was Congress not playing the role that
it's constitutionally appointed to do. Do you see what I mean?

GROSS: So you think that whether the Gulf of Tonkin happened or not, Congress
should have revisited the issue, and that's the larger problem?

Sen. McCAIN: Oh, absolutely, particularly when we went from a dramatic
escalation--remember, when the Gulf of Tonkin incident took place, there was a
relatively small number of American troops on the ground in Vietnam. And it
dramatically escalated and--as did the conflict. Congress should have
revisited it on numerous occasions, in my view. If...

GROSS: Revisited it and pulled our troops out? Revisited it and ended the
war?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, at least made decisions whether to remain there, whether
to accept an escalation, whether it was in our national security interest to
continue the conflict. They basically took a pass and let the executive
branch--until after the Tet offensive, basically the administration had a
relatively free hand in conducting the conflict.

GROSS: So you don't feel betrayed by the Gulf of Tonkin fabrication?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, it's not so much I feel betrayed. I had heard questions
about it for many, many years. My dear friend Admiral Stockdale, who passed
away a few weeks ago--when we came back from prison in Vietnam, because he was
involved at that time, stated that he thought that there was some very false
aspects of the Gulf of Tonkin resolutions--incident. So I was not surprised.

GROSS: Senator McCain, you supported the invasion of Iraq, and now you
support sending in more troops and say to pull out now would likely lead to
full-scale civil war. Yesterday--well, on Sunday, you were on "Meet the
Press" with Tim Russert, and following your interview he interviewed Tom Kean
and Lee Hamilton of the 9-11 Commission. And they were saying that they're
very concerned that public security really is not a priority with the Bush
administration. And they say that public security is competing with the war
in Iraq. Do you agree with that perception, that public security is now
competing with the war in Iraq?

Sen. McCAIN: No. I believe that most administrations are capable of handling
more than one issue. I think that a lot of the responsibility for our
failures to address some of the issues of homeland security can be placed at
the doorstep of Congress. We don't have spectrum first responders because the
Congress, influenced by the National Association of Broadcasters, refuses to
do it. We don't have consolidated oversight of homeland security because the
old bulls in Congress refuse to give up their turf.

I think that the funding issue clearly, again, goes back to Congress. Lee
Hamilton and Tom Kean complained bitterly that the same amounts of money go to
parts of the country which are very unlikely terrorist targets and not enough
money goes to those areas that need it. And that--again, you can attribute
that to Congress.

Now are we paying enough attention to port security and rail security?
Probably not. Are mistakes being made by the Department of Homeland Security
and TSA and others? I would think so, but I would also point out that there's
not been another terrorist attack on US soil since September 11th. And right
after September 11th, I don't think you could find an expert in America that
didn't believe that there was going to be another attack sooner rather than
later. So we have had some success.

I don't believe that the Iraq War and homeland security are necessarily
exclusive because, as I said on "Tim Russert," Mr. Zarqawi and bin Laden have
said once they drive us out of Iraq, they will come to the United States after
us. That's been their words, not mine.

GROSS: You've criticized Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not having
enough troops when we invaded Iraq. Do you hold him responsible for any other
things that you consider to have been misjudgments in how the war has been
executed?

Sen. McCAIN: A number of misjudgments. When the looting started and they
failed to put that down with whatever it took--created an environment of chaos
and insecurity for the people of Iraq. When we vastly underestimated the
challenge of this growing insurgency--there was a period of time, Terry, when
things were pretty quiet in Iraq, and we had a window of opportunity to
rebuild the infrastructure and address some of the problems that faced the
country and they didn't do it.

The administration in Baghdad was poorly done. As you remember, General
Garner was there, and he was out and then Bremer came in. Mr. Wolfowitz said
that we would pay for the war in Iraq with Iraqi oil revenues. When the first
insurgents--or when the looting started, Secretary Rumsfeld said, `Stuff
happens.' And then when the insurgency started, he said there was a few
dead-enders. The reason why I mention that, there was a gross
misunderestimation of the challenge we faced in the post-conflict aspect of
Iraq.

GROSS: Do you think that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld should be asked to
resign?

Sen. McCAIN: That's up to the president of the United States. If the
president wants him on his team, I'm not going to question that. But, as I
said--very strong disagreements because early on after the initial military
phase, I said, `You've got to have more troops over there.' And I didn't
think of it myself. I heard from everybody from sergeant majors to generals
saying the same thing; that they didn't have enough troops over there. And we
paid a very heavy price for that.

GROSS: John McCain. We'll hear more from him in the second half of the show.
He has a new book called "Character Is Destiny."

And, also, we've invited Democratic Senator Joe Biden to be our guest, and we
expect to have that interview scheduled sometime soon. I'm Terry Gross and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our discussion with Senator John McCain. And
rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Madonna's new album. The first single from it
is on Billboard's Top 10.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with John McCain,
Republican senator from Arizona. He has a new book called "Character Is
Destiny."

You head the Indian Affairs Committee, which has been investigating the work
of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And he's been accused of defrauding Indian tribes
that he represented, tribes that had or were trying to open casinos. He's
been indicted in Florida on federal fraud charges and is under investigation
by a federal grand jury and two Senate committees, one of which is yours.
Recently his business partner, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty to one count of
conspiracy to bribe public officials and defraud Indian tribes, and he agreed
to cooperate with prosecutors. Where are you in your investigation with the
Indian Affairs Committee?

Sen. McCAIN: We're going to write a report, and there may be additional
information we may have to look at, but we've pretty well wrapped it up.
There were four major tribes that Abramoff and Scanlon ripped off for a total
around $88 million. But when you look at other aspects, like telling them to
make certain contribution, it gets much higher than that. The Indian Affairs
Committee is that; we're supposed to oversight Native Americans. And we were
told of this--this whole thing started by being told of a couple of
disgruntled tribal council members in this small tribe in Louisiana, and it
blossomed into something far--a thousand times greater than I ever thought
that it would.

And so we've pretty well wrapped our side of the investigation. We'll be
making legislative recommendations and other things. But it's not the job of
the Indian Affairs Committee to investigate members of Congress. That's the
Ethics Committee and other committees to do that.

GROSS: But you might have a sense from your perspective of how far-reaching
you think this investigation will be in terms of affecting members of
Congress, the Department of the Interior. The Christian Coalition has been
involved with part of the story. How far do you think it's going to go?

Sen. McCAIN: Oh, I think it's going to go a long, long way. I didn't know,
frankly, about Mr. Safavian, the one that was recently indicted because he
had lied about his purposes of his trip, a golfing trip to Scotland. And
there's many things that we don't know about, but there's--that we know enough
about things to know that this thing is going to be very, very big.

GROSS: And do you think it will be mostly Republicans affected? Will there
be Democrats as well, do you think?

Sen. McCAIN: I have no idea. I only know what I read in the media. I've
heard that some Democrats were also involved in the contributions and letters
and things like that. But none of that can I prove. I only--most of the
stuff now that we get--in the media.

But let me just tell you, Terry, here's the problem. They have a broken
system--legislative process in Washington. Most of the money and some--many
of the policy decisions are now made in the appropriations process. In other
words, line items by the thousands are put into appropriations bills, and they
are not read, nor are there hearings. And we all vote without having read or
scrutinized these appropriations bills. So now if you can get a hold of an
influential lobbyist, that person can go to an influential member of Congress
and get a line item in for money or policy.

So this system is broken of the way we legislate, and that lends itself and
opens it up to this kind of Duke Cunningham corruption kind of a situation.
And it's terrible, and it's got to be fixed.

GROSS: So what would be the way of fixing it, do you think?

Sen. McCAIN: Do not allow these items to be added on appropriations bills.
Just--they're there to fund programs that are already authorized. We have an
authorization--that means you examine an issue, like the need for a new kind
of destroyer--and you authorize it. You say, `OK, the Navy can build these
destroyers.' And then the Appropriations Committee appropriates the amount of
money.

Now the Appropriations Committee will make all kinds of policy changes and put
in these line items because they must pass. The appropriations bills must
pass because they fund the various branches of government. The authorizing
bills do not have to pass. So all of the action goes over to the
appropriations bills. The highway bill that had 6,000--it wasn't an
appropriations bill, but it basically was a combination of authorizing and
spending--6,000 earmarks in it--6,140 earmarks. These appropriations bills
are full of these earmarks. Most of them have to do with funnelling money, but
some of them have to do with fundamental policies.

GROSS: You, of course, co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold campaign reform
legislation, which passed. And now the kind of corruption that you're talking
about now, in which lobbyists basically pay to write in certain parts of
legislation, campaign reform doesn't affect that particular part of corrupt
lobbying. Are you interested in sponsoring any legislation that would
directly address that?

Sen. McCAIN: Yes, and you will see it within a week or two weeks. But,
again, you can reform the lobbying--more transparency, more reporting, more
information about activities of lobbyists; there's a whole lot of things you
can do. But we also have to change the way that Congress works. You've got
to go back to the old business of authorizing things and then funding them. I
mean, major policy changes have been made on appropriations bills, and many,
many extraneous things have been added by the thousands over time, and that's
wrong. And until you fix that, you're always going to have people who will
take advantage of a system.

GROSS: How do you think the corruption scandals now are affecting the
Republican Party? And, you know, there's--you know, Tom DeLay has been
indicted. Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, who was involved in the Abramoff
scandal, resigned. Randy Cunningham resigned after pleading guilty to taking
more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors. So, you know,
there's the indictment of Lewis Libby. Karl Rove may still be under
investigation. There's so much going on right now in terms of, you know,
investigations and indictments. So what effect do you think this is having on
your party?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I think it's given rise to much lower esteem on the part
of the voters, and I think that's directed at both parties in Congress to a
significant degree. I think it probably hurts Republicans more than Democrats
since we are in power, but it means it's time for us to reform. I think a lot
of people who watch the way things work in Washington will say there are
cycles of reform and then the need to clean things up and then, you know, it's
sort of a cycle that we go through. Right now we have to change the way we do
business. I've been saying that for some years.

GROSS: Do you think it's difficult to be in American public politics today
and remain untainted, remain free from the corrupt influence of money?

Sen. McCAIN: Yes. Yes, I do. Most of the men and women I serve with in the
Senate and that I served with in the House are good and honorable people. You
know, we're finding out that there are some that are not, but the overwhelming
majority of them are honorable people.

GROSS: My guest is Senator John McCain. He has a new book called "Character
Is Destiny." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Senator John McCain is my guest.

Your new book "Character Is Destiny" is about people who you consider to be
inspirational, to be role models, including Mother Teresa. And you have a
daughter that you adopted from an orphanage that, I think, was run by Mother
Teresa. Am I right about that?

Sen. McCAIN: Yes. Yes, it was her group of nuns that ran an orphanage in
Dacca, Bangladesh. Yes, that's where my wife was visiting with a medical team
and Bridget was there and she had a very severe cleft palate and we're very
pleased to have the opportunity and the blessing to bring her home and be part
of our family.

GROSS: When you were running for--in the presidential primary in 2000, there
was--and I think it's fair to call it--a smear campaign against you, which
used your daughter. There was like a whisper campaign saying that your
daughter was actually a daughter that you had fathered with a black
prostitute.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm. That's right. Yes.

GROSS: How did this whisper campaign work? Like how do...

Sen. McCAIN: I don't...

GROSS: ...these kinds of rumors travel?

Sen. McCAIN: I don't know because I've never engaged in anything like that.
We knew that that was out there and it was very painful for us, of course.

GROSS: And also in these whisper campaigns were that you mentally unstable
because of your POW experiences and that your wife was an addict. How do you
fight against things like that when no one is taking credit for saying it and
it's all--my understanding is it's like phone calls...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...that come across from like two-way talk radio.

Sen. McCAIN: Yes, yes.

GROSS: And like little handouts that are that are anonymously...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...placed on cars in parking lots.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And it's hard to trace back to an individual.

Sen. McCAIN: Well, it's very tough and it was very difficult, but I would
also point out that one of the major reasons why we lost in South Carolina was
not because of that as much as it was that the entire Republican establishment
supported President Bush, then Governor Bush, and were behind him and he had a
great deal more money to spend than we did and they were better organized than
we were in many respects. So, look, I didn't like, Terry, the things that
happened, but for me to look back in anger over something that happened back
five years ago is not appropriate. I want to move forward. I want to put it
behind me and I want to serve the people of Arizona in the Senate. I think
it's wrong to hold a grudge in American politics.

GROSS: Well, I wanted to ask you about it because it may be symptomatic of a
larger problem in politics today, which is the smear campaign. I mean, would
you say that there's a difference between playing hardball politics and
smearing somebody?

Sen. McCAIN: Yeah, but, you know, I observed both the Virginia and the New
Jersey governor's races here just recently and it seemed to me they had it to
a pretty good art form. They--you know, it--it's--I laugh about it, but
really it's unfortunate. We need a different level of dialogue in American
politics and electoral process. The thing that's most damaging of all about
it is that young people are so turned off by it that it's hard to get
qualified and ambitious young Americans to seek public office. That's why I
mind it more than anything else.

GROSS: You know, when you're smeared from somebody in the other party, you
maybe expect it a little bit more. But when it's happening from your own
party in a primary, is it more surprising and does it make it more difficult
to feel really united with your party when you know people within that party
have lied about you in such a really destructive way?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I found in my experience, probably the most bitter
campaigns are primaries within the party because, you know, there's
not--sometimes not much of a philosophical difference so they give in to other
things. So primaries are usually pretty bloody and bitter, sometimes more so
than a general election.

But the other thing about it is, Terry, politics is not bean bag, and it gets
tough.

GROSS: It's not what?

Sen. McCAIN: It's not bean bag...

GROSS: Oh.

Sen. McCAIN: ...and it's tough and it's difficult. But I think that what
you really need to look at is, you know, the campaign that you waged. Overall
with some mistakes and some excesses, I'm very proud of the campaign that we
ran. And I'm proud when I look back on it, the people that supported us and
the people that rallied to us. And you know, I'm very proud of the job that
we did. And for me to be angry five years later and say, `This person did
this or that did that or they did this,' look, Americans want us to move on.
And I was just re-elected to the Senate in the last election in 2004. I
campaigned for the people of Arizona, said `Let me represent you and your
interests and your values and your ambitions, not look back in anger at
something that happened in a primary in South Carolina.' Not only do I not
hold a grudge, as you know, I campaigned very vigorously for the re-election
of President Bush and I was glad to do so.

GROSS: Again, I was asking not because...

Sen. McCAIN: Sure, sure.

GROSS: ...of holding a grudge...

Sen. McCAIN: Sure, yeah.

GROSS: ...but because, you know, your campaign isn't the only campaign that
this kind of thing has happened in.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if you think there's something that can be done to
stop those kind of smears?

Sen. McCAIN: Well...

GROSS: And I'm wondering, too, if you consider the swift boat campaign
against John Kerry similar in fashion to the smear campaign against you or if
you consider that to be, you know, a different animal altogether?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I think it was different in many respects because this
was a paid-for ad campaign. What happened to us was all sort of under the
radar kind of thing. In the campaign you're talking about, like, in South
Carolina I think that the media can play a more instructive role. Maybe if
the media had exposed some of this stuff more widely we could have done a
better job and maybe we should have done a better job in exposing it.

In the swift boat campaign I immediately condemned the attacks on John Kerry's
combat record. I said it was dishonest and dishonorable to question his
performance for this nation in combat. Now anytime before or after his role
in combat, then I think it's relatively fair game. But, no, I did not approve
of the attacks on John Kerry's combat record because he served honorably in
Vietnam, just as President Bush, in my view, served honorably in the National
Guard.

GROSS: I want to read you something that John Dickerson wrote in Slate
magazine...

Sen. McCAIN: Sure.

GROSS: ...in November 29th and he was talking about how some Republicans--how
the president now has kind of a negative coattail effect, that some
Republicans are trying to keep their distance because the president's ratings
have gone so low...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and because the war has become more unpopular. But you continue to
support him and are not concerned about being associated with him. So
Dickerson writes, `McCain can embrace Bush without being hurt by the
affiliation because voters think he's winking as he does it. McCain's fans
see his stumping for Bush and his politics as being pro forma and insincere.'
What would you say about that?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I know John Dickerson very well and I appreciate his
views, but the reason why I have the popularity that I have is that people
don't believe that I conduct myself with a wink and a nod, that I
believe--that I do things that I believe in whether they happen to be popular
or not. And I take these positions recognizing that at the moment or even
long term, it may not be the same as the majority of the American people. But
I've continued to do what I believe is right and in my heart I believe I'm
right. I campaigned for President Bush for re-election because I thought the
trand--I know that the transcendent issue of the 2004 campaign and maybe 2008
is who's best equipped to win the war on terror. And I was convinced then and
am to this day that President Bush is better equipped to do so. Did we have
some disagreements? Of course. But in all due respect to my friend John
Dickerson, I think that people accept my positions because they believe that
they're sincerely held, and they are sincerely held. I can assure you of
that, and they come from long years of experience and study and having people
that advise me and I consult with that I respect and admire.

GROSS: Now you're going to wait till after the midterm elections to decide
whether you want to run or not in 2008.

Sen. McCAIN: Yeah.

GROSS: If you do run, you'd be 72 at the time of the election...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...which would be two years older...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...than Ronald Reagan was when he ran for president...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and he was the oldest person to get--to win the presidency.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So does that--is that an issue for you at all?

Sen. McCAIN: Not for me and at the beginning of the program you mentioned my
93-year-old mother. I think I would try to take her with me wherever I go.

GROSS: You can make a good genes argument.

Sen. McCAIN: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Sen. McCAIN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Senator John McCain. He has a new book called "Character Is Destiny."
We've invited Democratic Senator Joe Biden to be our guest and expect to have
that interview scheduled sometime soon.

Coming up: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Madonna's new CD. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Madonna's new album "Confessions on a Dance Floor" has
disco flavor
TERRY GROSS, host:

Madonna has a new album called "Confessions on a Dance Floor." Rock critic Ken
Tucker says it's a welcome return to form for the once and future disco queen.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

MADONNA (Singer): (Singing) Every little thing that you say or do, I'm hung
up, I'm hung up on you. Waiting for your call, baby, night and day. I'm fed
up. I'm tired of waiting on you. Time goes back so slowly for those who
wait. No time to hesitate. Those who run...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

"Confessions on a Dance Floor" is crafted like an old-fashioned '70's disco
album with one song blending into the next, with throbbing synthesizer bass
lines bridging the compositions. In the disco era, this was meant to simulate
the nonstop barrage of music that dancers experienced in full thrall to the
discotheque's deejay. For Madonna's purposes, it connects her past--dance
clubs were the first place where her music was played and appreciated--to her
present. Only Madonna would have the nerve and the artistic verve to blend
dance rhythms with musings about middle-age superstardom and the kabala. Only
Madonna could pull it off as enjoyable rather than insufferable.

(Soundbite of "How High")

MADONNA: (Singing) It's funny. I've spent my whole life wanting to be talked
about. I did it, just about everything to see my name in lights. Was it all
worth it? And how did I earn it? Nobody's perfect. I guess I deserve it.
How high are the stakes? How much fortune can you make? Does it get any
better? Should I carry on, will it matter when I'm gone? Will any of this
matter?

TUCKER: That's "How High," a terrific piece of music with the album's most
trivial lyric, Madonna moaning about the ephemeral satisfactions of fame and
fortune. It's the sort of song you put out only if you're famous and rich and
have run low on other subjects to sing about and, as such, it's simultaneously
the high and low point of the album.

This is a contradictory quality of Madonna's music that I've always found
endearing. She may be one of the pop world's bossiest, most arrogant people,
but she sure knows how to sell herself pleasurably.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

MADONNA: (Singing) You can call me a sinner and you can call me a saint.
Celebrate me for who I am, don't indict me for what I ain't. Put me up on a
pedestal or drag me down in the dirt. Sticks and stones really break my bones
but your names will never hurt. I'll be a garden, you be the snake. All of
my fruit is yours to take. Better the devil that you know. Your love for me
will grow because this is who I am. You can't like it or not. You can love
me or leave me 'cuz I'm never gonna stop. Oh, no.

TUCKER: The key to the pleasure that pulses beneath "Confessions on a Dance
Floor" is its relative simplicity. Madonna put together these tracks with
Stuart Price, who's been the musical director of her recent concert tours.
Even when Madonna was putting out dicey, uneven albums like--well, like her
last one, the commercial dud called "American Life," the tours remained
brilliantly staged and bracingly forthright affairs. Stuart Price has brought
that directness to his approach to the music here.

(Soundbite of "I Love New York")

MADONNA: (Singing) I don't like city streets but I like New York. Other
places make me feel like a dork. Los Angeles is where people go see me.
Paris and London, baby, you can keep, baby, you can keep, baby, you can keep,
baby, you can keep, baby, you can keep, baby, you can keep, baby, you can
keep, baby, you can keep, can keep, can keep.

TUCKER: In general, the music is so swirlingly good that I like even the dumb
songs such as that one, the genially goofy "I Love New York," which finds
Madonna rhyming York with dork and sounding like one, a cheerful dork, though.

The last time around on "American Life," Madonna, conscious mother, spiritual
adventurer and avid yoga and horse-riding enthusiast residing in England, was
so consumed with spite against the American president that her music curdled
into a sincere, earnest puddle that most people simply chose to step around.
This time out, she's a different sort of contradiction. She's both looser and
hungrier, more eager to regain her position in the marketplace and more
confident that she can invoke her increasingly distant past without sounding
like a nostalgic has-been. The result is tough, resilient music that dares
you not to like it.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is film critic at New York Magazine. He reviewed Madonna's
new album "Confessions on a Dance Floor."

(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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