John McCain’s presence is felt at every corner of the Hilton Hotel in New York City; he’s in town for an appearance on Saturday Night Live. Secret Service agents line the hotel’s hallway, and aides stick their heads into our hotel suite, counting down the minutes to the candidate’s arrival for his interview with ESSENCE, his first with an African-American publication.
When the 71-year-old Arizona senator, wearing khaki pants and a dark blazer, finally walks into the suite where we are to conduct our interview, he seems every bit the military man he is—rigid in his bearing, gracious, serious, respectful. He thanks ESSENCE for taking the time to talk to him and stops me when I begin to tell him about our 8 million readers.
“I know the magazine well,” he says.
This has been one of the best and also one of the toughest weeks on the campaign trail for the senator. He gained ground with a speech earlier in the week in which he laid out his plans for his first term as president of the United States. But there were a few bumps along the way. Just one day before our meeting, Senator Barack Obama, 46, had come out swinging against McCain. The fierce exchange between the two was sparked by President Bush, who, during a speech before the Israeli parliament, seemed to criticize Obama, without calling him by name, for indicating a willingness to meet with leaders of Iran. Bush called the approach “the false comfort of appeasement.” Obama, who seemed to relish the chance to take on the President, quickly pulled the presumptive Republican nominee into the argument, yoking him to Bush and his policies. It was a move pundits predicted could hurt McCain, given the President’s record-low approval rating.
Then, just before sitting down with ESSENCE, McCain receives the news that Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, 76, has just been rushed to the hospital. Minutes into our interview, McCain’s top aide rushes into the room and places her cell phone to the candidate’s ear. McCain mouths an apology to me and begins talking into the phone.
“This is John McCain—just heard the news,’’ he tells the person on the line. “I would just like to relay to Senator Kennedy my thoughts, prayers and my love are all with him. If there is ever any moment whenever it would be appropriate, I would like to speak to him. I just hope you relay that to him and to the family. Thanks for taking my call. I know you are very busy right now.” Then he hands the cell phone back to his aide, apologizing to me for the interruption. “Ted had a stroke,” he explains. [ The condition was initially thought to be a stroke but was later described as a seizure.] “That was his chief of staff. Ted is one of my dear friends. We are very close—very close, personal friends.”
Despite his challenging week and the fact that he knows this interview will focus on issues of importance to voters who seem to be strongly behind Obama, McCain is ready to talk about his plan to address African-American concerns and to discuss how race factors into the election, and why he doesn’t believe Obama is ready to be president.
Here are excerpts from our exclusive interview:
ESSENCE: Senator, I read and watched your May 15 speech. It seemed very optimistic. You envisioned many things: ending the war by 2013, improving public education, improving health care. But I am curious whether you have plans as president to improve some of the dire problems in the African-American community. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, there is a serious AIDS crisis. Unemployment among African-American men is especially high, and there is an education gap that persists between Black and White children, despite class. What would a McCain administration do to help solve these problems?
McCain: First of all, my general overall mission is to continue to erase barriers that are based on race, wherever policies are needed, and, of course, to improve everyone’s opportunity. [Here he pauses to talk to Ted Kennedy’s chief of staff.] To answer your question and to be more specific, I believe education is clearly the remaining barrier, whether it is preschool or Head Start or elementary or K–12. We have an unacceptable situation in America today where lower-income people do not have the same access to the quality education that higher-income people have. We tried busing, but that didn’t work. So now we have to bring in new programs, which will improve education standards and choice and work with teachers…. But we also have to act at the federal level, update the No Child Left Behind Act. The No Child Left Behind Act was a good beginning, in my view. Those who want to scrap it completely—I respectfully disagree. But now we have learned the lessons of the first five or six or seven years of putting No Child Left Behind into practice. So let’s fix it, because it’s clear we have a two-tiered system of education in America.
ESSENCE: This will be a priority?
ESSENCE: Republican Newt Gingrich said the Republicans should not ignore the African-American and Latino community, but this election year Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani didn’t bother to address the Black community. As the Republican nominee, how will you reach out to the Black community, not only in this election, but afterward?
McCain: Go to places and venues that would allow me to continue a dialogue with the African-American community. I will go to the NAACP convention.
ESSENCE: You will?
McCain: Oh, yeah. I don’t know any reason why not. I went to Selma and stood at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and talked about the need to include “forgotten Americans.” I will never as long as I live forget the beautiful women of Gees Bend, Alabama, with the quilts. They were singing spirituals. On the first occasion I could find in the White House I would have them sing again. It was so moving. There was a woman there who was 91 years old. Can you imagine the environment she lived in when she was 21? And yet, this woman was full of hope, compassion and forgiveness. But does that mean in my campaign I am going to get a majority of the African-American vote? Probably not. But what it does mean, what I’ve committed to, is assuring and promising all Americans whether they vote for me or not, I am going to be their president. Americans are sick and tired of partisanship and divisions along party lines that cause gridlock and frustration and lack of addressing the issues that confront America.
ESSENCE: If you were our next president, what would your cabinet look like? Would you consider African-Americans and Latinos at top positions?
McCain: Absolutely. Also I would include Democrats because we have to ask the best of America to serve our country at these difficult times.
ESSENCE: I talked to Condoleezza Rice last year. She said she definitely would not run for president.
McCain: [Laughs] I am happy about that.
ESSENCE: Some in your party believe she would be a great vice-president for you. Is that a consideration?
McCain: I think Condi Rice should be a consideration for any job, including president of the United States, because she is a true American in every respect.
ESSENCE: But for your vice-president?
McCain: If we talk about people we consider, we get into a very slippery slope.
ESSENCE: So you have not decided?
ESSENCE: Would you consider Colin Powell?
McCain: Another great American. We have been dear friends from for many years.
ESSENCE: There is an unwritten rule in American politics that you don’t criticize other American leaders on foreign soil, correct?
ESSENCE: This week while in Israel, President Bush seemed to paint Democrats, particularly Obama, as appeasers in the face of terrorist threats. Do you agree the rule had been broken?
McCain: No, I don’t. He didn’t mention his name.
ESSENCE: Well, we knew whom he was talking about.
McCain: I am not totally convinced of that. Look, Neville Chamberlain was an appeaser, and there have been others who have appeased throughout the history of this world… For Israel, I think their most tragic memory was that of Neville Chamberlain…
ESSENCE: But he was willing to give [a chunk of Czechoslovakia away to Hitler].
McCain: …an appeasement that led to the first holocaust and near extermination of an entire ethnic group, people who happen to be Jewish…. My vow is to never have a second holocaust.
ESSENCE: Do you believe Senator Obama and the Democrats are appeasers?
McCain: No, but I think we have very different…. No…absolutely not. But I do believe when Senator Obama wants to sit down across from the president of Iran who is dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel and whose country is providing weapons that are killing young Americans in Iraq, that is bent on acquisition of nuclear weapons, then I would not sit down and have unconditional talks with him. I think Senator Obama is not experienced, otherwise he would not make that judgment.
ESSENCE: Senator Obama did say he would want to debate with you about that, and it definitely seems you are ready to have that debate.
McCain: Absolutely. And President Roosevelt didn’t sit across the table from Hitler and President Reagan didn’t sit across from the Ayatollah Khomeini and President Kennedy didn’t sit across the table from Fidel Castro. The president of Iran two days ago called Israel a stinking corpse. What are you going to talk about when you sit across from him? I don’t believe Senator Obama has the experience and judgment. That is what will be the debate in this campaign.
ESSENCE: The media outlets are talking about the interview you had with a Sky News reporter who said that at one point you said we have to deal with Hamas leaders. How is that different from what Obama said?
McCain: It’s well established that was a total false allegation. In our statement I said that Hamas’ behavior will determine our relations. I made it very clear that they have to renounce their intentions to destroy the state of Israel.
ESSENCE: The issue of race has been creeping into the election, especially between the Democratic candidates. And some believe Republicans will use race against Obama. How will you relay to your party that this election should be issue-driven, or do you think race should be part of the discussion?
McCain: First I would like to say I respect Senator Obama enormously, and the effect he has had on Americans, including young Americans and the level of enthusiasm he inspires. The differences we have are simply differences in political philosophy. Already I have strongly objected to and condemned some messages that have been put out against Senator Obama’s character or have any overtones that are not appropriate for the United States of America.
ESSENCE: You mean racial overtones?
McCain: Well, I condemned the spot done connecting him to Rev. Wright, but I have not yet seen anything racist. I think the American people want what they are going to get from me and Senator Obama: a spirited, respectful and tough difference of views and principles and philosophies. I have never been involved in any campaign in which I’ve done or said things that I have viewed as dishonorable or inappropriate. I have not always run a perfect campaign, don’t get me wrong, but I know Senator Obama well enough to know that we are going to get it from his campaign. And by the way, it’s going to be tough. We aren’t going to toast marshmallows. But it is going to be fair with clear lines drawn between us. It’s not going to be personal attacks. We are not going to be impugning anyone’s character or patriotism.
ESSENCE: Whenever I’m interviewing someone, I ask regular people if there is one thing they would like to ask the person I’m questioning?
ESSENCE: So I asked my neighbor Julio Rosa, who is African-American and Latino. I thought he was going to say something about Black men or Latino men, but he said “Ask McCain how can he help us with the gas prices?” He said it’s almost 4 dollars. How do we go to work? That was really a concern for him.
McCain: Energy independence. We have to become independent of foreign oil. We have to marshal the innovation and talents of America to take on one of the greatest challenges of our time. We got to become independent of the Saudis. That means we are going to have to come up with these clean, cold technologies: nuclear, wind, solar, hybrid cars.
ESSENCE: But what about tomorrow or next week?
McCain: Look, the only thing I wanted to do—and I was criticized heavily for it—is give a break from gas tax: 18.5 cents out of every gallon that Julio buys is in the form of tax. I just wanted to give him a little relief for the summer.
ESSENCE: But many people said that wasn’t going to work, especially Senator Obama and many economists.
McCain: Look, there is a woman I know who works in maintenance. She drives 40 or 50 miles to work, and she drives an older car. The rich people live in Georgetown; they can walk to work. Gas taxes are regressive on lower-income people. Why not give them a little relief? Some economists were saying, “Oh no, this is the end of Western civilization!” But my thinking was, Maybe they can buy some school supplies for their children.
Credit: AP Photos