John McCain at the Senior Citizen Center in Nashua, Saturday, December 8, 2007
I entered the Senior Citizen Center feeling anxious about whether I would get a chance to ask John McCain a question, and wondering how long I would have to wait, trying to remember my lines, until that chance would come. I had been striking out pretty regularly recently, whether it was because the campaign events were usually highly orchestrated, or because the candidate made sure to not take many questions. Given the size of the crowds and the number of people who want to ask a question, it’s really a longshot to be chosen. I’m pretty uncomfortable with public speaking, and working up the nerve to remain ready for a whole 45 minutes is not something that comes easy to me.
My only consolation was that I would probably not be blackballed from questioning, as I could well have been by the Romney camp. McCain has a reputation for being willing to take on questions that other politicians would rather avoid, so I was hopeful. I had spoken to a lot of people who knew McCain and felt like I had a feel for the man. I try to separate the personal relationship from the fight over policy because I know that politicians don’t enjoy being abused anymore than I would. It’s possible to wage a political battle without having it get personal.
Late in the Town Hall Meeting McCain pointed to me, and I rose from my chair thinking I’d better make it good because I might never get another similar chance. I started by telling him that he is much beloved in New Hampshire, and not without reason. That people see in him a basic human decency missing in most of the other Republican candidates. The crowd showed it’s approval by breaking into applause. I continued by saying that the press people that travel with him speak of him with great affection. That when I hear him talk about going to the Vietnam wall and seeing all the Hispanic surnames, or when he talks about visiting the soldiers serving in Iraq and how many have a Hispanic surname on their uniform, that he makes me proud to be an American.
I said that I had attended his Town Hall Meeting in Bedford the evening before, and reminded him of a “young lady”, a veteran, who spoke about a poll published days before in the Los Angeles Time saying that 60% of U.S. personnel serving in Iraq, and their families, think that the war was a mistake, and that we should get all troops out within a year. He had pooh-poohed the poll, asserting that he had just spent Thanksgiving with the troops, and that they all back the mission and want to see it through to completion. I challenged that notion, asking, what did he expect them to say? Who would want to disappoint the great John McCain, living legend, and probably a personal hero to many of them. I passed forward a copy of the survey so that he could inform himself.
It all depends on the question and the way it’s asked, okay? Now, of course they’re frustrated. I’m frustrated. You’re frustrated about the war in Iraq. I know of no one, hardly, who’s not frustrated because of the failures in Iraq. But I will suggest to you again, I could ask you a ques-, ask them a question, do you believe that you’re succeeding in Iraq, and the overwhelming majority of them will say yes. And I am confident of that, and I’ve seen other polling data that indicates that. So it depends on how the question is asked and who it’s asked by. […] So the thrust of the woman’s question is what I disagreed with and that is that the servicemen and –women who are serving somehow don’t want us to continue in Iraq. And that was the implication in her remarks. And my view is, they don’t like it there, they want to be home with their families, they are normal human beings, but they know now, they know now that we’ve got the right strategy, they’ve got the right leader, and that they are succeeding, and if they fail that they will be fighting and dying there or someplace else in the world. And that’s what I believe the overwhelming majority of opinion of the men and women who are serving, and I don’t ask for their opinions. They send them to me. They send them to me because they’re proud of what they’re succeeding now. So I still have an honest disopin-, uh, difference of opinion with the young lady as to the thrust of her use of this poll. I hope that clears that up, and I did not mean to be disrespectful to her in any way, and I didn’t mean to.
Then I spoke about how he always says that mistakes were made in the war, which bothers me, because the real mistake that was made was in starting the war in the first place. That he always says he has the judgement to be president, but that I felt he had not used good judgement in voting to authorize the war, that it is delusional to think that we could go into the Middle East and turn Iraq into a western-style liberal democracy. He cited Turkey as an example of such a country, but I protested that the was no analogy and that Turkey and Iraq were two completely different cases. I think this was about the end of our discussion because I really can’t recall anything beyond that point.
John McCain at The Opera House in Derry, Thursday, January 3, 2008
After my exchange with McCain in Nashua, I started to feel that I had not dug deep enough into the issues. I had felt then that I had gone on long enough and sensed that I might lose the support of the crowd if I didn’t end it pretty quickly. So I resolved to have another go at him and hope that my respectful treatment of him would mean he would be willing to call on me again. And I wanted to do it fast, before he had forgotten who I was! And since I wanted to be more successful, I decided to pose a question which would not be a loaded one, but a straightforward request for some very important and relevant information.
I went to his Town Hall meeting at the Lion’s Club Hall in Londonderry on Saturday night, December 29. I had a good seat near the stage, but it was pretty far stage-right, and he didn’t choose any qustioners from my part of the audience. While he was speaking he would look in my direction, but didn’t appear to recognize me.
So my next, and probably last, chance would be Derry on the Third. It was the coldest day of the year, the rush hour traffic was terrible, and parking was difficult to find, so I arrived just in the nick of time to stake out a spot to stand along the side wall, pretty close up. McCain was stumping with Joe Lieberman and they occupied the stage together all night. When a question was asked McCain would answer and then Lieberman would put in his three or four minutes-worth. Finally someone asked if Lieberman was his running mate! I don’t think people came out in that cold to hear Lieberman, and I think there might have been a little resentment of his degree of involvement.
I was getting pretty anxious because the doubly long answers were taking up a lot of time, and there were a lot of questions. One woman who asked a question added that BOTH of her daughters also wanted to ask a question. The second daughter had to ask mom what the question was, so that lady got three questions. Another questioner later tried the same ploy but wasn’t successful. Toward the end of the night McCain motioned toward me, but before the microphone was brought over, the person seated in front of me stood up and started to ask HIS question.
McCain took his question and then another from elsewhere in the audience, but then returned to me. I thought it was a very considerate thing to do, so I thanked him for coming back to me. I said that I would not be voting for him because I planned to vote in the Democratic primary in order to try to deny a victory to Hillary Clinton who I called a “Joe Lieberman Democrat”. Nobody expected to hear me insult Lieberman to his face, and the crowd wasn’t sure how to react. I’m sure Joe has heard worse, and wisely retreated to the far corner of the stage, letting McCain handle the question.
Because of the nerve that I had struck, I momentarily forgot that I was supposed to say that I hoped McCain would beat Romney though. I would manage to get it in later. I recovered before the crowd noise died down and pushed ahead with how I had heard McCain say over and over again that we can’t leave Iraq because of the consequences of doing so, but I had searched his website to find out what his plan was and had found none. Just like when Hillary Clinton says she will end the War in Iraq while planning to continue parts of the mission there, the devil is in the details. So I asked Mr. McCain what he hoped to accomplish in Iraq, and how long it’s going to take.
Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker made a transcript of what happened from this point on …
McCain: The fact is, it’s a classic counterinsurgency. And you have to get areas under a secure environment, and that secure environment then allows the economic, political, and social process to move forward. In case you missed it, New Year’s Eve, people were out in the streets in Baghdad by the thousands for the first time in years. That’s because we provided them with a safe and secure environment. Is it totally safe? No. I talked earlier about the suicide bombs and the continued threats. But then what happens is American troops withdraw to bases. And we reach an arrangement like they have with South Korea and Japan. We still have troops in Bosnia. The fact is, it’s American casualties that the American people care about. Those casualties are on the way down, rather dramatically. You’ve got to consider the option. If we had withdrawn six months ago, I can look you in the eye and tell you that Al Qaeda would have said, We beat the United States of America. If we’d gone along with Harry Reid and said the war is lost to Al Qaeda, then we would be fighting that battle all over the Middle East. I’m convinced of that and so is General Petraeus…. I can tell you that it’s going to be long and hard and tough. I can tell you that the option of defeat is incredible and horrendous. And I can look you in the eye and tell you that this strategy is succeeding. And what we care about is not American presence. We care about American casualties. And those casualties will be dramatically and continue to be reduced.
Tiffany: I do not believe that one more soldier being killed every day is success. There were three U.S. soldiers killed today. I want to know, How long are we going to be there?
McCain: How long do you want us to be in South Korea? How long do you want us to be in Bosnia?
Tiffany: There’s no fighting going on in South Korea. There’s no fighting in Bosnia. Let’s come back to Iraq.
McCain: I can look you in the eye and tell you that those casualties tragically continue… But they are much less, and they are dramatically reduced and we will eventually eliminate them. And again, the option of setting a date for withdrawal is a date for surrender. And we will then have many more casualties and many more American sacrifices if we withdraw with setting a date for surrender. Now you and I have an open and honest disagreement. But I can tell you that six months ago people like you, who believe like you do, said the surge would never succeed. It is succeeding. And I’ve been there and I’ve seen it with my very own eyes. Do you want to follow up?
Tiffany: President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for fifty years.
McCain: Make it a hundred. How long—We’ve been in Japan for 60 years, we’ve been in South Korea for fifty years or so. That’d be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. That’s fine with me. I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Qaeda is training and recruiting and equipping and motivating people every single day.
Tiffany: By the way, I hope you kick Romney’s butt. That man cannot lie straight in bed.
McCain: I knew there was a reason I called on you.
Tiffany: What if U.S. soldiers are being killed at the same rate, one per day, four years from now?
McCain: I can’t tell you what the ratio is. But I can tell you, I understand American public opinion, sir. I understand American public opinion will not sustain a conflict where Americans continue to be sacrificed without showing them that we can succeed.
Tiffany: I hear an open-ended commitment, then.
McCain: I have an open-ended commitment in Asia. I have an open-ended commitment in South Korea. I have an open-ended commitment in Bosnia. I have an open-ended commitment in in Europe…
He ended by saying, “This kind of dialogue has to take place in America today, and I thank you.”
I was astonished by his answer. I briefly wondered whether he had just lashed out in anger, but realized that this was what he had been talking about all along. I thought he say we have to stay until we can turn it over to the Iraqis and then we can come home. Even the Bush administration says that troops will be withdrawn upon success, and administration officials point to the fact that a brigade is going home upon finishing their rotation and won’t be replaced because of the success of the surge. Did anyone know that McCain meant to keep us in Iraq indefinitely? As I write this, I think of the nine U.S. servicepeople who have lost their lives in the last two days.
Of course, the whole world treated this news like the bombshell that it was. When McCain was interviewed 2 1/2 days later on Face The Nation and Meet the Press, the video or audio was played and he was asked to explain his statement.
As Hertzberg says in his article …
“You have to hand it to McCain. It’s impossible to imagine any of the other Republicans engaging in this kind of extended conversation with a citizen. There was more real debate in this exchange than in any of the so-called real debates.”
John McCain at Nashua City Hall Plaza, 7:45 am on Monday, January 7, 2008 (the day before the election)
Monday morning I caught up with John McCain again at 7:45 am in Nashua. As they were trying to hurry him onto the bus, he stopped and talked to me for a couple of minutes. I told him I wanted to thank him for helping me play my role in the election. I also wanted to remind him of our meeting 4 weeks earlier (he didn’t remember) where I said a lot of nice things about him, and that I meant every word, and I hoped he won the Republican primary.
He said, you and I can have a respectful debate (and complained about the protesters who had interrupted his event Sunday night), and we need to have that kind of debate, and how important it is to our democracy. I told him that when he went to Concord that afternoon he would see a bus with Iraq Veterans Against the War on the side, and said I would appreciate it if he would go and talk to them. He said he would if he can. He actually started to leave, and then turned around to come back to add something else to the conversation. There was a big color photo of the crowd on the front page of the Nashua Telegraph Tuesday, with us talking right in the middle. My niece in New York saw it on CNN Tuesday morning, and I’m told it was on WBUR (NPR in Boston) all day Monday.