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Senator and Former Presidential Candidate John McCain.

Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain. His book, “Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir” (Harper Perennial) is now out in paperback. He’ll discuss his years as a POW, his bid for the presidency, and his endorsement of George W. Bush.


Other segments from the episode on September 12, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 12, 2000: Interview with John McCain; Review of Margaret Atwood's novel "The Blind Assassin."


DATE September 12, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Senator John McCain discusses his political run for

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Senator John McCain. Although he lost the primary campaign for
the Republican presidential nomination, he succeeded in calling attention to
the issue of campaign-finance reform. He has endorsed his former opponent,
George W. Bush. McCain left the Republican convention early to get biopsies
of two lesions. They were diagnosed as melanoma, skin cancer. The lesions
and nearby lymph nodes were removed, and he says the news was good, the cancer
hadn't spread.

McCain's best-selling family memoir, "Faith of My Fathers," has just been
published in paperback. McCain's father and grandfather were naval
commanders. His father was commander in chief of the Pacific forces during
the war in Vietnam. John McCain served as a naval aviator in Vietnam and was
a prison of war for five and a half years. I spoke with him yesterday and
asked, first, how his experiences during the primary affected his thoughts on
the possibility of political reform.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I believe that the greatest
experience in my life was the opportunity to run for president of the United
States. It's a rare and wonderful experience and one that I'll always
treasure and not look back either with anger or remorse because of the fact
that I was a loser. I was able--we were able to motivate millions of young
Americans to be involved in politics again. And, for example, in the Michigan
primary--300,000 voters who voted and never voted in their lives. And so I'm
grateful for the experience.

I learned that Americans are very patriotic. I learned that Americans want
to serve the country. I learned that there is great cynicism out there, and
even alienation on the part of young people as to whether they are really
well represented anymore in Washington, DC. And they--although they don't
know the specifics of campaign-finance reform--most of them have never heard
of McCain-Feingold. There is a cynicism out there that they are no longer
represented, and the special interests do. And there's a desire for overall
reform; reform the tax code; reform of education; reform of the military;
reform of health care--and, if properly called, Americans will respond in--I
believe, in the most patriotic fashion.

GROSS: Your biggest issue is campaign-finance reform. And correct me if you
disagree with this, but I think on that issue, you may have more in common
with Gore and Lieberman than with George W. Bush. If George W. Bush wins, do
you think it would be a setback to your cause?

Sen. McCAIN: No, because I--we will have reform. Of course, I wish Governor
Bush would support more vigorously campaign-finance reform. In the case of
the vice president, he and the president, for years, said they strongly
supported campaign-finance reform, and, yet, never set any kind of an example
except the worst.

GROSS: You have your differences with George W. Bush over campaign-finance
reform and also over taxes. You've opposed George W. Bush's tax plan. You've
charged that 60 percent of the benefits from his tax cuts go to the
wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. Now you took a few weeks before
endorsing George W. Bush after you dropped out of the primary campaign. Why
did you decide to endorse him?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I always said during the campaign that I would support
the nominee of the party. The Republican Party is my home. I never
contemplated leaving it. Campaigns and primaries are good. Governor Bush
said that I had made him a better candidate. I know it made me a far better
senator and representative to have had the opportunity to have run. And, of
course, there were difference. And there will be differences. But he and I
share an overwhelming majority of views--less government; need for reform of
education; private retirement accounts for Social Security; a much stronger
and revamped military. There's a long list of issues in which we are in
agreement, as opposed to just a couple of issues that we're in disagreement.

GROSS: Do you feel, as somebody who's trying to be a reformer--for instance,
in the area of campaign finance, you have to walk a fine line between
sticking to your guns and then compromising on certain issues.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Like in--how do you figure out when it's counterproductive to not

Sen. McCAIN: Well, Terry, I've been involved in a number of reform issues;
reform of lobbying; reform of a gift ban; other reform issues; the line-item
veto. And I think the way you approach this is you stick to your guns and you
stick to your principles and never vary from them. But there comes a time
when you have the votes. We found this out with the gift ban and lobbying ban
and also with line-item veto--when you have the votes. Then you sit down and
negotiate with people and say, `OK, I'll--as long as you agree in principle,
we'll discuss the details.'

Let me just give you an example in campaign-finance reform, real quickly.
There is an argument that the thousand-dollar individual contribution limit,
which was enacted in 1974--which, by the way, the United States Supreme Court
just reaffirmed this constitutional several months ago--should be lifted,
because $1,000 in 1974--should be raised, because $1,000 in 1974 is,
obviously, about $3,000 now. I wouldn't be opposed to that at all. But that
would have to be in return for abolishing all soft money. So I'm not willing
to say right now I would raise the limit. But when we negotiate, I think
those kinds of things are negotiable. But the heart of this thing is
elimination of the soft money, which has now proliferated and corrupted
American politics.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Senator John McCain. And his
best-selling book, "Faith of My Fathers," is now out in paperback.

Perhaps the most controversial statements you made during the primary had to
do with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell; when you called them evil and agents
of intolerance. You said, `We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Didn't Robertson and Falwell become big, political powers because of
their affiliation with Ronald Reagan?

Sen. McCAIN: I believe what I said--`We're the party of Abraham Lincoln,
Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.' And what I meant by that was that
we're a party of inclusion and not exclusion. We're a party of addition and
not division, and that I believe that Reverend Robertson was leading our party
in a way that made us exclusionary, and, frankly, would doom us to a minority
status. And I couldn't articulate my vision for the future of the party
without saying, `I reject that kind of leadership of our party.'

What I think that Ronald Reagan did was, both in demeanor and in action, say,
`Come on in. There is room for everybody in our party.' That's how they were
able to get the so-called blue-collar Democrats; the Reagan Democrats to come
to our side and elect him and re-elect him by overwhelming margins. I don't
think that Ronald Reagan ever sent a message of exclusion.

Finally, there's room in our party for the religious right. But the religious
right, in my view--the majority of them are good, hard-working families who
are wonderful people. But we have to reject people like Reverend Robertson
who say that there's not room in our party for those who disagree on specific

GROSS: Gary Bauer supported you in the primary race after he dropped out.
What's the difference between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and Gary Bauer?

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm. Well, Gary Bauer, who--obviously, we had some
differences and--I had some differences with. That's, again, why--I ran in
the primary, and he did, too--I believe, has the message of Ronald Reagan. He
worked for Ronald Reagan. He recognized that inclusionary message is what
wins elections and what is important to the American people. I think that
Gary Bauer, with his emphasis on his strongly religious views, which I respect
and admire, never, ever in the many debates and encounters I had with him,
didn't articulate a view that we want everybody into the party, even if we
disagree on specific issues. That's directly different from Reverend Pat
Robertson, who went about attacking people within our own party just because
there may be a specific disagreement.

And, again, I think, just as the Democrat Party has labor and people further
to the left, there's plenty of room in our party. But no element of our
party can be exclusionary and dominate the agenda of the Republican Party.

GROSS: Well, one of the things that George W. Bush is trying to run on is
the sense of inclusion. How seriously--you called Governor Bush a `Pat
Robertson Republican.'

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How seriously do you take his language of inclusion?

Sen. McCAIN: I take it very seriously. He--the majority of his campaign has
been one of inclusion and one, as he calls it--`compassion conservative.' I
don't particularly like the phrase, but the fact is that his message has been
and is one of inclusion and one of bringing about a positive change to both
the tone and conduct of our government. And I admire him.

When I said that he was, quote, "a Pat Robertson Republican," was during the
South Carolina primary when thousands and thousands of phone calls were being
made by Pat Robertson in support of him, calling my good friend, Warren
Rudman, a religious bigot--a vicious bigot. And there were some things that
were said during the South Carolina phase of the primary which I thought were
driven by Pat Robertson. But I believe that what Governor Bush's message has
been and is now is exactly what Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt and
Abraham Lincoln had in mind for our party. And I'm very enthusiastic about
the way he's delivered that message.

GROSS: What would you consider, like, a high point of the campaign, and then
a point that left you feeling--even if only momentarily--incredibly cynical
about politics?

Sen. McCAIN: I think that's pretty easy. Two high points, obviously, were
winning the New Hampshire primary, and then our comeback--winning Michigan,
which was a great surprise, after we'd lost South Carolina. And the low
point, probably, obviously, was not just losing South Carolina, because I
could feel it. I could see the crowds getting smaller. And I could see the
air going out of the balloon in South Carolina, but some of the tactics that
were employed against us I just don't think about anymore. I refuse to allow
myself to think about it because there's no sense in getting angry or show
remorse or anger because there's nothing you can do about it. I mean, it's
over. It's done. Politics is a bean bag. And you look forward and
appreciate the great times you had and the wonderful experience rather than
look back with any anger or remorse.

And I just want to repeat to you, it was the greatest experience of my life.
I was just asked by somebody I think yesterday, `Do you miss it?' And I said,
`Yeah.' I regretted not so much losing. I regretted that the campaign ended
because it was so much fun and such an uplifting experience to go to these
campaign events and have all these young people there and the excitement and
all that that went on. That's what I miss more than anything else.

GROSS: I think one of the campaign tactics used against you that you're
talking about was a phone campaign...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...that tried to smear your reputation? Is that...

Sen. McCAIN: Oh, yeah, and that of my wife and illusions to my chil--one of
my children. And, you know, I mean, it was very vicious stuff. But,
again--look, you just can't dwell on that. That's--those things happen in
life. And, you know, Jack Kennedy said, `Life isn't fair.' And what I look
back on is the, you know--the last day before the California primary, I was at
UCLA. It was raining. There were hundreds of young people out there; the
face of America; all these different ethnic people who would--whose families
had come to this country and done so--great American success stories. And
when I talk--started talking about the beauty of service to the nation, I
could see them respond. I mean, those are the things that I remember.

The last town hall meeting in Peterborough, New Hampshire. We'd been there,
you know, the previous July and 40 people had showed up. That afternoon
1,200 people showed up. I mean, you--those are the things you remember rather
than any of the bad stuff.

GROSS: Some journalists have said that something that you did was similar
to--perhaps, comparable to the phone campaign against you--and I wonder your
thoughts about this--and this was the phone campaign in which the message was,
`This is a Catholic voter alert. Governor George Bush has campaigned against
Senator John McCain by seeking the support of Southern fundamentalists who've
expressed anti-Catholic views.' Comparable or not comparable?

Sen. McCAIN: I--no, what I said was that he appeared at Bob Jones
University, that was a--that practice, again, the ban against, quote,
"interracial dating." That was a factual statement. Where I was wrong was
just not having my name on it; by calling it a, quote, "voter alert." That
was the wrong thing to do. The message was factual.

GROSS: You should have identified it as what? As a John McCain...

Sen. McCAIN: This message brought to you by the...

GROSS: Right.

Sen. McCAIN: ...John McCain campaign.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. My guest is Senator John McCain. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Senator John McCain. His family memoir, "Faith of My
Fathers," has just been published in paperback.

I know that you feel strongly that a lot of young people are disillusioned by
the American political system and you'd like to excite them and inspire them
to participate; to become a part of it. I think one of the things that
confuses a lot of young people--perhaps some older people as well--is this.
And I'm not trying to imply that there's any choice here. But two people will
run against each other in the primary and just, really, seem to intensely
dislike what each other stands for.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And then the primary's over and the loser endorses the winner.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You know, in your case...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: know--very heated campaign with George W. Bush. Primary's
over. Quite a long cooling-off period before...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: actually endorsed him. But you did endorse him.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So in the eyes of some people--probably, particularly, some young
people who are just learning about politics, it could look like, `Well,
they're all phonies,' you know. `They say one thing and a few weeks later,
you know...'

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: `...they're endorse--he's endorsing him.'

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So how do you reconcile that?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I think that, first of all, there's some legitimacy to
that, particularly people who, you know, pay somewhat surface attention. And
I understand that complaint. We received e-mails and letters and phone calls
from many, many people when I endorsed Governor Bush that did not agree with
that decision. I guess my point is: One, I said that I would support the
nominee of the party. I wouldn't have run if there were no differences
between me and Governor Bush. I mean, he had all the money and the
organization. Why should I run against him if I didn't have some differences
on my vision for the country and the Republican Party? We were, in honor, in
agreement on about 95 percent of the issues. I thought those differences had
to be ventilated. Overall, with the exception of South Carolina, that debate
and--between myself and Governor Bush was conducted in a respectful fashion.

GROSS: Just a quick question, getting back to something we were talking
about earlier when we were talking about your criticisms of Jerry Falwell and
Pat Robertson.

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Back when Falwell and Robertson were strong advocates of President

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: This was the period when you were entering politics. Did you feel as
critical of them then?

Sen. McCAIN: No, because I thought they were just a voice in American--I
mean, in the Republican Party. Pat Robertson has attempted, I believe, to
assume a dominating role. I'm--by the way, I'd like to make an additional
comment. I probabl--I shouldn't have said they were evil people. That was
said on the bus. It's inaccurate description. But what I should have said
was--confine my remarks to what I had said in the speech, and that is that
they--I believe they were leading the party in the wrong direction and in an
exclusionary fashion. I shouldn't have made any personal comment about their
personal character traits or anything else. That's was one of several
serious mistakes I made during the campaign, because the fact I said they
were evil then dominated the news rather than and crowded out what really was
my message, and that was a rejection of their leadership.

GROSS: When you described Gary Bauer as being inclusive...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and he's with the group Focus on the Family...

Sen. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...does that include--inclusive of homosexuals?

Sen. McCAIN: We're in disagreement on that, as we are on several other
issues. But that--again, we can have that disagreement, but--without parting
as friends. Gary and I had a significant difference of opinion--and do--about
the normal trade relations with China. I think we should have normal trade
relations with China. Gary disagrees with that. But we can have that
disagreement--in fact, that debate is being held today and should be held
across America.

GROSS: What would you like to see George W. Bush do about the presidential
debates? What do you think he should do?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I think he's doing the right thing now. They're going to
negotiate and they're negotiating, I think, in the next few days. And I think
they're going to come up with a--with something that's satisfactory which
would be a number of debates.

GROSS: You're the head of the Commerce Committee in the Senate. Is it true
that George Bush tried to get you to convince the networks to carry debates
that would be broadcast on their competing networks? For instance, if Larry
King moderated a debate on CNN--to convince CBS, NBC and ABC to cover that as

Sen. McCAIN: I don't--that didn't come from Governor Bush. Again,
staffers, zealous. They're committed to their candidate, you know. But I
don't believe that Governor--that did not come from Governor Bush, and I
don't believe he would ask me to do that. By the way, I...

GROSS: But staffers did ask you to do that.

Sen. McCAIN: Yeah, there was that request sent, yes. But, you know, I think
that whoever asked it didn't quite understand that even if I'd done that, the
likelihood of the heads of the networks to say, `Oh, Senator McCain wants us
to carry this' at some huge expense to themselves, I think was a highly
unlikely scenario. But it just was--is not appropriate for me to do that as
chairman of the Commerce Committee.

GROSS: Senator John McCain recorded yesterday. We'll hear more of the
interview in the second half of the show. His family memoir, "Faith of My
Fathers," has just been published in paperback.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of the interview I
recorded yesterday with Senator John McCain. His best-selling family memoir,
"Faith of My Fathers," has just been published in paperback. It's about
growing up in a military family, serving in Vietnam and being held prisoner of
war for five and a half years.

As you mentioned, you said even when you were campaigning that you would
support the Republican Party, no matter what the outcome of the primary was.
Do you think that your sense of party loyalty was affected by what you learned
about loyalty as a prisoner of war? You write a lot about having a cause
larger than yourself and the importance of that to you. I was wondering if
there's any connection or if politics is something really different than the
kind of loyalties you were talking about.

Sen. McCAIN: Well, in prison, I learned that I had to depend on others, not
just on myself. And my dearest and best friends and those that I loved and
know best and love most were those I had a privilege of serving with. But in
politics, I think it was more of a philosophical position that I held. I
believe that Abraham Lincoln changed America in many ways and gave us a
blueprint for our party that has held through now for 100-and-some years. I
believe that Theodore Roosevelt, combined both conservative principles and an
active role for government, both domestically and foreign policywise, is a
great role model for me and other Republicans. I believe that Ronald Reagan
also articulated an encompassing and frankly very set of principled positions
on issues that are good for us.

So the reason why I'm loyal to the Republican Party is because I think I can
play a role in making the Republican Party better and returning us to these
principles and precepts laid down by these great leaders of our party. So if
I had believed that the Republican Party was fatally flawed, then clearly, I
would have listened to that siren's song about being--running as an
Independent and all those things. But the Republican Party is my home, so it
had more to do with my philosophical moorings than it had to do with any
previous life experiences that I had.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. In this election, the issue of abortion isn't being discussed
nearly as much as it has been in recent, previous presidential campaigns.
You've described yourself as pro-life. In your political agenda, how would
you rate the importance of, say, abortion, compared to, say, campaign finance
reform? Where do you see abortion fitting in?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I think it's an incredibly important issue because it has
to do with one's fundamental beliefs. I mean, there's nothing more important
than your fundamental belief. And that obviously has to do with my view that
life begins at conception. But I also think that there is some areas that
perhaps the Democrats don't want to get into as heavily in the past, such as
partial-birth abortion. I think partial-birth abortion is terrible. And the
majority of Americans do. Medical technology is advancing so that earlier and
earlier, we're proving that there is a life there because children are born
earlier and earlier and kept alive. And so I think there's some--a lack of
leverage on the issue from the Democrat side that perhaps they enjoyed in
previous elections.

I also think that some of us feel also that when you're getting into basic
fundamental moral beliefs, it gets a little complicated because you have to
respect the views of others, even if there are, you know, very strong
differences. And what I would have--and counseled--and it was rejected--I
would have had a preamble to our platform saying, `Look, we are a pro-life
party. That is basic tenant of the Republican Party. But we do not reject
the participation of anyone who, just because they disagree on this or any
other specific issue, as important as that issue might be.' My good and dear
friend, Tom Ridge, who's the governor of Pennsylvania--he and I are in
disagreement on the issue of abortion. But I think he's been one of the great
public servants and members of Congress and governors that I have ever known,
and so therefore, I appreciate his contributions to the Republican Party,
rather than take issue with him because he and I have a disagreement on the
issue of abortion. Do you see my point?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that you are going that even people who disagree with
that should be upstanding members of the party. But I'm wondering...

Sen. McCAIN: Absolutely.

GROSS: I'm not sure I've heard you discuss how, in your own mind, you weigh a
woman's ability to control her reproductive destiny against your belief that,
you know, life begins at conception.

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I believe that the process should be that Roe v. Wade be
overturned. That would not change very much, because it would then return the
issue to the states. That's when those, like me, who believe in the sanctity
of the unborn begin then the great debate to convince the hearts and minds of
people that abortion is wrong. That is the whole battleground is to have a
debate and discussion, respecting the views of others but trying to convince
people that it is wrong. But just simply overturning Roe v. Wade would just,
as I said, return it to the states. Then we need a great national debate and
then the woman's right to, quote, "choose" should be balanced, obviously,
against the viability of a human life. And I'd be eager to enter into that
debate with the pro-choice people with respect.

GROSS: My guest is Senator John McCain. We'll talk more after a break. This

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: You say that you were the only person in your high school that you
knew of who was expected to go into the military. Both of your fathers were
naval commanders. Your father was the commander in chief in the Pacific
during part of the Vietnam War. Do you think you would have gone into the
military if you weren't expected to, if it wasn't part of the family

Sen. McCAIN: You know, I don't know, Terry, because one of the aspects of my
life, which being a child of the '50s, that I was expected. It was just sort
of a natural evolutionary thing that I was going to be--go to the Naval
Academy and be in the Navy and that was partially what I rebelled against,
either consciously or subconsciously, by being such a ne'er-do-well at the
Naval Academy. I'm sure there were some regulations that I didn't break while
I was at the Naval Academy but not many. And so one thing I've tried to focus
with my own children is obviously encourage them to do well but not in any way
exhibit any pressure towards a military career. And I hope that one of them
chooses it but I hope it would be out of their own desire rather than
pressures that--look, I love my parents, but it was a sort of thing that was
kind of expected in those days and obviously I'd like to have my children make
more of a choice on their own initiative rather than what they might think I
would want them to do.

GROSS: You really disliked how Washington conducted the war in Vietnam. You
felt that they didn't fight hard enough; that the war could have been won and
could have been won in a timely fashion. And you say that most of the people
you know--well, maybe--am I going too far there? The...

Sen. McCAIN: Yeah. Yeah, I think so, Terry.

GROSS: Yeah.

Sen. McCAIN: Let me explain...

GROSS: Thank you.

Sen. McCAIN: ...very quickly. I think that--look, we had a decision to make
early on in 1964 at the--perhaps at the latest that we were either going to do
whatever is necessary to win or don't go into the conflict at all. I could
argue with you that it would have been probably a smart thing not to go in,
given the risk of Chinese and Russian intervention, that we couldn't win
without, you know, full-scale operations which perhaps the American people
wouldn't have supported, etc., etc. But the worst way to approach the
conflict is to do it in half measures which, frankly, people like Colin Powell
and Norman Schwarzkopf, who were over there as junior officers and leaders and
platoon commanders and air and squadron commanders, understood that you
couldn't do that again and that is reflected in the conduct of Operation
Desert Storm.

So I am very ambivalent about the Vietnam War. Sure I wanted us to win, sure
I'm sorry that millions were sent to re-education camps and thousands executed
and others who had--took--voted by--you know, by taking boats. But at the
same time you can't go into these conflicts without understanding the nature
of the enemy, which we did not, and are devoted to really taking risks in
order to ensure victory in--my complaint about the Vietnam War was the
strategy and tactics employed as more than anything else, which doomed us to

GROSS: But to sum up, you were very critical about how Washington conducted
the war, how the politicians were managing the war. Did...

Sen. McCAIN: Yes. Yes. And I was critical also of some of the military
leaders early on who knew that the war--that there's no way we could win with
that strategy and should have stood up and said, `I quit. I resign.'

GROSS: Did the war shake your faith in politics? You ended up going into
politics but you must have been pretty cynical about it during the war.

Sen. McCAIN: No. I was cynical about employing a strategy which even junior
officers, such as I recognized, was not a viable one. And I grieve and mourn
to this day the unnecessary loss of young American lives. That's the real
tragedy of the Vietnam War is those names that are etched in black granite
down on the Mall. But my motivation to enter politics--one of them was to
make sure that we learned those lessons and embarked on a healing process
between the American people and the veterans who served, including our former
enemies, the Vietnamese. So my motivation was a positive one rather than one
of disillusionment.

GROSS: Did you, after returning to the United States, ever have any doubts
about the war and whether it should have been fought?

Sen. McCAIN: My doubts were significant. I read and studied for virtually a
year everything I could get my hands on about it and wanted to know what it
was that caused me to spend several years over there--all the way back to the
French occupation of then Indochina and all those things. And I learned a
lot. And, again, I learned that the Vietnamese were, to a large degree,
nationalists, that there was a significant disconnect between what was going
on on the ground and what was believed in Washington.

Look, Jack Kennedy at his inauguration said, `America will go anywhere and
bear any burden in defense of freedom.' And there was the belief in both
Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon administration that if Vietnam fell, the domino
theory, all of Asia would fall, etc., etc. Well, clearly, that was not the
case. In fact, Nixon's trip to China during the Vietnam War was an
interesting scenario, but--so I believe that the point is that if we ever send
our young people into conflict, we have to have clear-cut goals. We have to
have a clear strategy for victory and recognize that if the American people
don't support that conflict, then inevitably you are bound to fail. And
that's why I admire former President Bush's ability to marshal American public
opinion prior to our military engagement in the Persian Gulf War.

GROSS: If you had done all the reading that you did after you returned home
before you went to Vietnam, would you have still wanted to go?

Sen. McCAIN: That's a very interesting question. I think I would have--I'm
sure I would have gone because I was a career military officer, but I
certainly would have had a lot more questions. But, very frankly, I don't
know who would have answered them. But that question has never been asked of
me before, Terry, but I think that I would have had significant questions, but
I believe that as a career military officer, I still would have gone.

GROSS: Questions or doubts?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I would have had concerns. Look, we had doubts on board
the ship. I'll never forget, one time I was assigned a target that came
directly from the basement of the White House that had been bombed 37 times
before. A hundred yards down the road was a bridge that was not on the target
list that clearly the trucks were going over. We all remember watching in the
Port of Haiphong the Russian ships come in, offload the missiles, the
missiles trucked up, put into place and then being fired at us. And we
couldn't do anything to stop that from happening. Some of it was so insane it
was almost ludicrous and so we could see--those of us who were in combat--how
crazy the tactics were and how they really were not hurting the Vietnamese.
The only time the North Vietnamese got hurt was the Christmas bombing in 1972,
when we virtually paralyzed them with B-52 bombing.

GROSS: You used to be I guess more of what you might describe as like a
good-time guy. You liked to drink, you liked to have a good time; didn't pay
that much attention to your studies, as we established. Do you feel like
you're still capable of really having a good time or has, like, the whole POW
experience, which happened I know a long time ago--but has that still at all
affected your ability to relax or to enjoy yourself or, you know, experience
pleasure? 'Cause I know for some people that really does affect the ability
to experience pleasure.

Sen. McCAIN: I enjoy every moment of my life. I enjoy every sunrise and
every sunset. I enjoy and love the beauty of the state that I represent. My
experiences have made me so appreciative of the opportunities that I've been
given and the life that I've been able to lead, I enjoy every, every day and I
look forward to getting up. Do I relax? I have a high energy level and so I
get restless and I read and I try to hike and get some exercise in and that
kind of stuff; and I, you know, work late and get up early, but that's not
because I haven't got the ability to enjoy myself. I always have this kind of
feeling deep down that I want to seize the moment and do whatever I can while
I have the opportunity to do it.

GROSS: John McCain, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Thank
you for your time.

Sen. McCAIN: Thank you, Terry. And thank you for some very tough and
interesting questions.

GROSS: Senator John McCain recorded yesterday. His family memoir, "Faith of
My Fathers," has just been published in paperback.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Margaret Atwood's new novel, "The
Blind Assassin." This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: New novel "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's latest novel, "The Blind Assassin," weighs in at over 500
pages. But critic Maureen Corrigan wishes it were twice as long.


It wasn't a bad summer for books. I recall reading some terrific essay
collections and autobiographies, but when I think back on the new fiction I
read, it's all a blur. I have the hazy impression that every other week or so
I read yet another pretty good novel by a first-time novelist. I can't
remember any complete titles or names. No doubt it's time for me to start
popping the ginseng, but I think I've also found another cure, a literary cure
for early middle-age reading memory loss. That's Margaret Atwood's latest
novel, "The Blind Assassin." Like the first bracing breeze of autumn, it's
blown into and dispersed the muggy literary miasma of summer with a sharp and
unforgettable story.

Admittedly, for the first 50 pages or so, I feared "The Blind Assassin" might
ultimately turn out to be an unreadable story. Maybe it's another sign of
waning youth, but I've grown impatient with self-conscious tricky narratives
and "The Blind Assassin" is anything but straightforward. There's the primary
story, told to us by a tart old woman named Iris Chase Griffen that's unevenly
split between an account of her present broken-down life in Port Ticonderoga,
Canada, and her youth as a society woman in the 1930s and '40s.

Iris, who's now in her 80s, doesn't mince words. Here's the arresting way in
which she begins her story. `Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura
drove a car off a bridge.' Yes, we do learn there is a connection between the
end of the war and Laura's suicide.

Throughout this primary narrative, Atwood also scatters newspaper articles,
mostly obituaries of other people related to Iris who've died before their
time. Do we have a murder mystery before us? Maybe. And then there's the
interspersed complete text of a sci-fi-slash-romance novel, also called "The
Blind Assassin," which was written by Laura and published posthumously by
Iris. The novel, which became an instant feminist classic, turned Laura into
an Emily Bronte, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood kind of icon for young women

Sci-fi leaves me cold, so for me it's a special testament to Atwood's
storytelling magic that this weird tale of the planet Zycron, populated by
mute virgins and sightless children and lizard men, becomes just as
emotionally gripping as Iris' real-life recollections. And as you would
expect from a master like Atwood, themes and images intertwine among all these
story lines, culminating in a delicious series of shockers.

Along with sci-fi, another low-rent genre, Gothic, is mixed into the main
narrative. Parts of Iris' personal history read like Daphne Du Maurier's
"Rebecca" and Ruth Rendell's masterpiece, "A Dark-Adapted Eye." Iris
tells us about her Victorian grandfather who founded the town's button factory
and moved the family into a creaky, pre-Raphaelite mansion filled with stained
glass windows and dark wood. There's also her mother, who died young. Iris
describes how she and Laura as children were playing at their mother's feet
under the kitchen table when they witnessed the first drops of blood from
their mother's fatal miscarriage spilling on the linoleum floor.

Afterwards, Iris and Laura were handed over to a succession of private tutors.
Here's how she describes there unsentimental education. `Father wanted us
taught French but also mathematics and Latin, brisk mental exercises that
would act as a corrective for our excessive dreaminess. He wanted the lacy,
frilly, sometimes murky edges trimmed off us, as if we were lettuces.'

During the Depression, Iris says, she was virtually sold as an 18-year-old
virgin to her father's business competitor, Richard Griffin, an autocrat
with an affection for Franco and Neville Chamberlain. Richard came as a
package deal with his sister, Winifred(ph), a horror tricked out in salmon
lipstick and ermine capes. But if the romance-slash-sci-fi tale has any basis
in truth, Iris also had the uncertain consolation of a lover waiting for her
in a series of crummy rooms. This demon lover, who's accused of being a
Bolshevik and a murderer, makes grocery money by writing sci-fi tales for the
pulps. To keep Iris diverted from asking questions about their future, he
sequentially spins out a story for her entitled "The Blind Assassin."

So what's the ultimate meaning of all of Atwood's tales within tales here, so
many of them called "The Blind Assassin"? Beats me. Her characters and the
period detail in this novel are so lush, like a deep pile chenille bedspread,
I confess I just sank right in and drifted away.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a song from Susannah McCorkle's
new CD, "Hearts and Minds." This is "I Can Dream, Can't I?"

(Soundbite of "I Can Dream, Can't I?")

Ms. SUSANNAH McCORKLE: (Singing) As we are, the blue horizon's bend. Earth
and sky here to an end. But it's merely an illusion, like your heart and
mine. There is no sweet conclusion. I can see, no matter how near you'll be,
you'll never belong to me. But I can dream, can't I? Can't I pretend that
I'm locked in the bend of your embrace. For dreams are just like wine and
I'll drink with mine. I'm aware my heart is a sad affair. There's much
disillusion there, but I can dream, can't I? Can't I adore you, although we
are oceans apart? I can't make you open your heart, but I can dream, can't I?
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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