Last Tuesday, Sen. John McCain met with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register in a bid to once again obtain the paper's endorsement. (In December, shortly before the Iowa caucuses, the Register endorsed McCain and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to be the nominees of their respective parties.) As news outlets widely reported, and as you can see for yourself in the video to the right, the interview at times became somewhat contentious.
John McCain is angry.
You can feel it in the clenched muscles in his throat, the narrowing of his eyes, the controlled tone with which he handles a question he doesn't like, as if struggling to contain something that might spill out. We've seen that body language on TV. But around a Des Moines Register table Tuesday, the anger and tension were palpable. And unsettling.
McCain's volatility has been written and whispered about by staff and Senate colleagues: the mercurial temper, the quixotic outbursts of reproach, then jocularity. But those alleged episodes were behind the scenes. The combative, prickly McCain we saw was seeking the Register's endorsement. He already got it in the caucuses.
He took frequent offense at questions, characterizing them as personal viewpoints of the questioners rather than legitimate topics. True, he was asked some tough, pointed questions about his running mate and his honesty. But America is having those discussions, and you'd expect he'd be ready, not defensive. It takes a thick skin to be president. [link]
SAJAforum: Compared to what you describe in your column, what was McCain's temperament like during his meeting with the Register's editorial board last fall, in advance of the caucuses?
BASU: I was there when he met with our editorial board in October 2007, when he was seeking the paper's endorsement in the caucuses. At that time he seemed far more relaxed, was more engaging and trusting, and was less defensive. Even then, on a few issues he was adamant when challenged about certain things he had said before, saying that he had been misquoted. But overall, he was far more jovial and less tense.
SAJAforum: What were your impressions of the substance of what McCain had to say during the meeting?
BASU: Most of what he talked about he's been discussing on the campaign trail lately. At that time the hot topics were [Alaska Gov. Sarah] Palin, the economic crisis, the failure of Congress to act and its consequences.
He expressed confidence in Henry Paulson but when pressed on whom he might appoint to such a position, threw out a few names like Warren Buffett, Fred Smith, and Meg Whitman. He said he would appoint both Democrats and Republicans, which I was pleased to hear, but I was surprised when he said he would ask them to serve for $1 a year. That obviously limits the pool to the very wealthy.
When asked about how things would be different with him as president, he said, "Government will be reformed, there will be a return to prosperity and peace in the world. " He said he would reign in excess spending and reform Medicare and social security. Asked how he'd do the latter, he said, "We will sit down together and come up with a fix" which would not include increasing taxes. He got angry when challenged on that assertion.
Obviously, I would have liked more specifics. Also, I guess I would have liked to hear a more inspiring vision for the average Jo who is struggling. What Barack Obama does best is inspire people to dream bigger. McCain ought to ramp up his inspiration meter.
He also said, "Radical Islamic extremism will continue to pose a threat to this country and world." He brought up "radical Islam" a year ago, too. He has called it the biggest threat we face. Both times I felt uncomfortable with his singling out one religion without qualifying that not all Muslims should be stereotyped that way.
On Pakistan, he defended the close ties of the United States to [former President Pervez Musharraf by saying, "When Musharraf came to power, Pakistan was a failed state." He said Musharraf made mistakes, like firing the Supreme Court chief justice, "but for quite a while he was the person we did business with because there wasn't anybody else." Now he wants to give [Pakistan's new President, Asif Ali] Zardari "the benefit of the doubt."
He said he wouldn't repeat the old mistake of pulling out of Afghanistan too soon (i.e., when the Soviets left) and yielding the country to the Taliban.
Overall, his views fell in line with core Republican free-market and choice principles -- in schools, health care, and the like. For example, he stated his belief that parents can make the best choices in their kids' education with minimal federal intervention.
He called himself the underdog in the race, but said, "We will win."
SAJAforum: With the benefit of hindsight, are there any questions that you wish had been asked of McCain during the interview but were not, or questions on which you would have followed-up?
BASU: Well, if I'd had the chance, I would have asked him what he felt was achieved by suspending his campaign to focus on the bailout, since he reportedly did not offer much that was helpful in resolving the bailout impasse in Congress. Also, why did he decide to show up at the first presidential debate after saying he wouldn't? And I would have liked to ask him if he watched the [Katie] Couric interviews with Palin and what he thought of how Palin answered questions.