'Fresh Air' Remembers Sen. John McCain

Aug 27, 2018
Originally published on August 28, 2018 10:56 am
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we join people throughout America on both sides of the political aisle in remembering Senator John McCain. His memorial service will be held at the National Cathedral next Saturday, one week after his death from brain cancer at the age of 81. We're going to listen to an interview I recorded with him in 2000 after his best-selling memoir "Faith Of Our Fathers" (ph) was published in paperback.

But we'll start with the interview I recorded with him in 2005 after the publication of his book "Character Is Destiny." This was five years after he'd lost the Republican presidential primary to George W. Bush. When we spoke, he was considering running for president in 2008. He did run, but lost to Barack Obama. McCain requested that those two former opponents speak at his funeral. We talked about many things in these interviews, including his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and his years as a Republican senator from Arizona. This 2005 interview begins with a story that involves his mother, who has survived him and is now 106.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Senator McCain, welcome to FRESH AIR. In your book "Character Is Destiny," you talk a little bit about your own life. And you tell a great story about your mother's objections to the language you once used...

JOHN MCCAIN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...To describe your experiences as a prisoner of war. Would you tell us that story?

MCCAIN: Yes. 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 and I would - 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. She said, Johnny. 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 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 (laughter).

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

MCCAIN: The moral of 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. And that would be the place for it - is when you're...

MCCAIN: I think so.

GROSS: ...People are carrying you away to torture you.

MCCAIN: (Laughter).

GROSS: That would be the place for obscenity.

MCCAIN: But, you know, my mom is - again, she grew up in an age where ladies and gentlemen never use that kind of language anywhere (laughter), as she said, under any circumstances. But she's a wonderful woman. She drives herself everywhere. She drove herself cross-country last Christmas, and I had to alert the local law enforcement agencies along the way.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCAIN: 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 5 1/2 years in Vietnam. And you have introduced an amendment to the defense appropriation bill. This would prohibit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment in the U.S. interrogations that happen outside of the U.S. Would you explain what you see is the need for this bill?

MCCAIN: Well, first, I got to 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 mean, 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 of guys that 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. In 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, 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 he - 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 or - 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 any 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.

MCCAIN: Yeah, the starting lineup of the Green Bay Packers, yup.

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

MCCAIN: Mainly, what...

GROSS: ...Names for what they were looking for. But did that...

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 a al-Qaida 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. You didn't give...

MCCAIN: I don't trust it.

GROSS: ...Accurate information, and you don't trust...

MCCAIN: No, I don't.

GROSS: ...Others would.

MCCAIN: No, I don't.

GROSS: 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. Although they will be...

MCCAIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...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?

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 is - has tremendous - any person who is 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, far preferable than a mock execution.

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

MCCAIN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

MCCAIN: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Great. I'll just wait until it goes (laughter).

MCCAIN: OK.

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

MCCAIN: It may be a helicopter coming - a black helicopter coming to assassinate me because...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCAIN: That way we can keep - as a dedicated watcher of "24," you never know what can happen...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCAIN: ...Because, see, they could kill two birds with one stone by wiping out a public - National Public Radio as well as a political enemy, you see? So they - it'll be hard to resist this target.

GROSS: This is a dark plot, indeed.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I think we are nearly safe now. That plane sounds in the distance (laughter).

MCCAIN: All right. Whew. Thank God.

GROSS: Now, since we've been talking a little bit about, you know, your experience 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 in 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 airstrikes, 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?

MCCAIN: Well, we've known for a long time that there were questions about the Gulf of Tonkin "incident," unquote. And the more important aspect of this, Terry, is that the firing - suppose 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. 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.

MCCAIN: Oh, absolutely, particularly when we went from an escalation, 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.

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

MCCAIN: At least made decisions whether to remain there, whether to accept an escalation, whether it was in our national security interests 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: 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. 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?

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, there was - 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 - oh, 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 mis - underestimation of the challenge we faced in the post-conflict aspect of Iraq.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Senator John McCain in 2005. We'll hear more of that interview after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "PLEASE KEEP THAT TRAIN AWAY FROM MY DOOR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Senator John McCain in 2005.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: 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?

MCCAIN: Yes, yes, it was her group of nuns that ran a orphanage in Dhaka, 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 were 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. It was like a whisper campaign saying that your daughter was actually a daughter that you had fathered with a black prostitute.

MCCAIN: Mmm hmm. That's a - yes.

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

MCCAIN: I don't..

GROSS: ...Of rumors travel?

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 are that you are 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 that come across on, like, two-way talk radio...

MCCAIN: Mmm hmm. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...And like, little handouts that are anonymously placed on cars in parking lots. And it's hard to trace back to an individual.

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. 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?

MCCAIN: Well, I've 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 get into other things. So primaries are usually pretty bloody and bitter and sometimes more so than a general election. But the other thing about it is, Terry, politics is not beanbag. And...

GROSS: It's not what?

MCCAIN: ...It gets tough. It's not beanbag.

GROSS: Oh, oh.

MCCAIN: And it's tough. And it's difficult. But I think that what you really need to look at is the - 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 the - 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 person, you know, 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. So 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 you're...

MCCAIN: Sure.

GROSS: ...Holding a grudge...

MCCAIN: Sure.

GROSS: ...But because...

MCCAIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You know, your campaign isn't the only campaign that this kind of thing has happened in. And I'm wondering if you think that there's something that can be done to stop those kind...

MCCAIN: Well...

GROSS: ...Of smears. 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.

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 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, any time 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: Senator John McCain recorded in 2005. After we take a short break, we'll hear the interview I recorded with him in 2000 shortly after he lost the Republican presidential primary to George W. Bush. His family memoir, "Faith Of My Fathers," had 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. We're remembering Senator John McCain. The first time I spoke with him was in 2000 after his family memoir, "Faith Of My Fathers," was 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 prisoner of war for 5 1/2 years. We spoke just a few weeks after he'd lost the 2000 Republican presidential primary to George W. Bush. He told me that in spite of losing that primary in 2000, the opportunity to run for the Republican nomination was at that point the greatest experience of his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MCCAIN: It's a rare and wonderful experience and one that I'll always treasure and not look back either in - 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 had 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, D.C. And they - although they don't know the specifics of campaign finance reform - most of them never heard of McCain-Feingold - there is a cynicism out there that they are no longer represented in the special interests due. 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 a most patriotic fashion.

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

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 - and 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 issues.

GROSS: 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?

MCCAIN: 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 a majority of Americans do. Medical technology is advancing so that earlier and earlier we are 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 on - from the Democrat's 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 they 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 a basic tenet 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. You see my point?

GROSS: Yeah. You're arguing that even people who disagree with that should be upstanding members of the party. But I'm wondering...

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.

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 a - the viability of a human life. And I'd be eager to enter into that debate with the pro-choice people with respect.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded with Senator John McCain in 2000. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "PLEASE KEEP THAT TRAIN AWAY FROM MY DOOR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Senator John McCain in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You said 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 tradition?

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 the pressures that - look; I love my parents, but it was sort of a thing that was kind of expected in those days. And obviously I'd like to have my children be - 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 knew - well, maybe - am I going too far there? You...

MCCAIN: Yeah. Yeah, I think so, Terry.

GROSS: Yeah.

MCCAIN: Let me explain...

GROSS: Thank you.

MCCAIN: ...Very quickly. I think that - look; we had a decision to make early on in 1964 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, et cetera, et cetera.

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 we couldn't do that again. And that was reflected in the conduct of Operation Desert Storm. So I'm 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 (unintelligible) 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. And my complaint about the Vietnam War was the strategy and tactics employed as - more than anything else, which were doomed - doomed us to failure.

GROSS: And - but to sum up, you are very critical about how Washington conducted the war, how the politicians were managing...

MCCAIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...The war.

MCCAIN: Yes.

GROSS: Did...

MCCAIN: 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.

MCCAIN: No, I was cynical about employing a strategy which even junior officers such as I recognized were - was not a viable one. And I grieve and mourn to this day the loss - 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?

MCCAIN: My doubts were significant. I read and studied for literally a year everything I could get my hands on about Vietnam. I wanted to know what it was that caused me to spend several years over there. I went 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, et cetera, et cetera. Well, clearly that was not the case. And 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?

MCCAIN: (Laughter) 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've answered them (laughter). But I - that's a - that question has never been asked of me before, Terry, but I think that I would have had significant questions. But I'm - I believe as a career military officer, I still would have gone.

GROSS: Questions or doubts?

MCCAIN: Well, I would've had concerns. Look; we had doubts on board the ship. I'll never forget one time I had - was assigned a target that came from - 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 Hai Phong, 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. It was - 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 of 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? Because I know for some people that really does affect the ability to experience pleasure.

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. The - 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 don't - haven't got the ability to enjoy myself. I always have this kind of a 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.

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

GROSS: Senator John McCain, recorded in 2000. His memorial service will be held Saturday at the National Cathedral one week after his death. We're going to take a short break here. Then our rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album featuring country music stars performing songs written by Roger Miller. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL FREEDMAN'S "LOVE TAKES TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.