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Who is John McCain? An In-Depth Look at the Arizona Senator’s Rise to Prominence

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We take an in-depth look at Sen. John McCain (R–AZ)–one of the most powerful members of the U.S. senate. From his marriage to the wealthy heiress of a liquor fortune to Vietnam to the vicious dirty tricks campaign by Bush operatives in the 2000 presidential race to his emergence as an influential supporter for Bush’s reelection in 2004. [includes rush transcript]

Today we are broadcasting from Phoenix, Arizona–home state to Republican Sen. John McCain. He is one of the most powerful members of the US Senate and ran against President Bush in the 2000 Republican primary. In fact, McCain won in New Hampshire, but after a vicious dirty tricks campaign by Bush operatives against him in South Carolina his candidacy plummeted. In a moment, we’ll look at that issue. But now, John McCain is crossing the country campaigning for Bush’s reelection. The Vietnam veteran has emerged as one of the president’s most influential supporters where he could affect the outcome in crucial battleground states like Ohio, Colorado and his home state of Arizona.

Last month, McCain spoke on the opening night of the Republican National Convention in New York. In the first major primetime address of the week, he took to the stage in Madison Square Garden to endorse President Bush’s re-nomination.

  • Sen. John McCain (R–AZ), speaking at the Republican National Convention on August 30, 2004.

Sen. John McCain speaking on the opening night of the Republican Convention last month. McCain’s support for President Bush is surprising for those who remember the bitter race between the two men four years ago in the Republican primaries. In the 2000 South Carolina primary, the Bush campaign launched a vicious attack against McCain that included questioning the Senator’s commitment to veterans and spreading rumors that he had been brainwashed in a Vietnamese prison camp, that his adopted daughter was a love-child he had had with a prostitute, and that his wife was a junkie.

Four years later, McCain has emerged as one of President Bush’s most influential supporters and was recently presented the “Team Player of the Week” award from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

At the Republican Convention last month, I caught up with McCain in the halls of Madison Square Garden. I began by asking him what he thought about the Swiftboat ads attacking John Kerry’s record in Vietnam.

  • Sen. John McCain (R–AZ), being interviewed by Amy Goodman inside Madison Square Garden, Septembr 2nd, 2004.

Sen. John McCain last month. Joining us today in our studio in Phoenix, Arizona is John Dougherty. He is a staff reporter for the Phoenix New Times, an alternative newsweekly based in Phoenix. He has covered John McCain’s career for years.

  • John Dougherty, staff reporter for the Phoenix New Times.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, McCain spoke on the opening night of the Republican National Convention in New York. In the first major prime time address of the week, he took to the stage in Madison Square Garden to endorse President Bush’s re-nomination.

JOHN McCAIN: Four years ago in Philadelphia, I spoke of my confidence that President Bush would accept the responsibilities that come with America’s distinction as the world’s only superpower. I promised he would not let America retreat behind empty threats, false promises, and uncertain diplomacy, that he would confidently defend our interests and values, wherever they are threatened. I knew, I knew my confidence was well-placed when I watched him stand on the rubble of the World Trade Center with his arm around a hero of September 11th, and in our moment of mourning and anger, strengthened our unity and our resolve by promising to right this terrible wrong and to stand up and fight for the values we hold dear. He promised our enemies would soon hear from us, and so they did. So they did.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator John McCain speaking on the opening night of the Republican National Convention last month. McCain’s support for President Bush is surprising. For those who remember the bitter race between the two men four years ago in the republican primaries. In the 2000 South Carolina primary, the Bush campaign launched a vicious attack against McCain, that included questioning the senator’s commitment to veterans, and spreading rumors he had been brainwashed in a Vietnamese prison camp, that his adopted daughter was a love child that he had with a prostitute, and that his wife was a junkie. Four years later, McCain has emerged as one of President Bush’s most influential supporters, and was recently presented the Team Player a Week Award from the Republican Senatorial Committee. At the Republican Convention, I caught up with senator McCain in the halls of Madison Square Garden. I began by asking him what he thought about the swift boats ads attacking John Kerry’s record in Vietnam.

JOHN McCAIN: Oh, I have said the campaign against his war record, the swift boat ads on his record in combat was dishonorable and dishonest, because I believe that he served honorably, as I believe President Bush served honorably.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Bush should say that those ads should stop?

JOHN McCAIN: We have been through this. We have been through this. The president, I’m glad, is going to go to court and to try legislatively to bring the 527s in line with campaign finance law, and that’s good.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this is similar to the attacks on you in 2000?

JOHN McCAIN: No, I have put the attacks behind me. The attacks that were made on me are long ago and far away. I don’t ever think about them or dwell on them.

AMY GOODMAN: They were very personal, very harsh and they questioned your war record.

JOHN McCAIN: And I had to get over it, and I got over it, and I don’t look back in anger. I look back at running for president as the greatest experience in my life.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s one thing to get over it. It’s another to stand with and campaign with the man who did it to you: George Bush.

JOHN McCAIN: I put it behind me. I put it behind. No, actually, we have a very good, friendly relationship.

AMY GOODMAN: Has he ever explained himself to you, why he attacked your wife, Cindy, and your kid?

JOHN McCAIN: You know, my discussions with the president are private. Okay?

AMY GOODMAN: Senator John McCain at the Republican Convention last month. Joining us today in our studio in Phoenix, Arizona, is John Dougherty. He is staff reporter from the Phoenix New Times, an alternative news weekly based here in Phoenix. He has covered John McCain for many years. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOHN DOUGHERTY: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Well, before we go back through Senator McCain’s whole record, let’s stick with this issue of the 2000 primaries. For people who don’t follow things that closely, or perhaps forget or weren’t focusing on what was happening behind the scenes in South Carolina, explain why Senator McCain might be still resentful about what happened, and what you think his relationship with George W. Bush is right now.

JOHN DOUGHERTY: I think it’s very interesting that Senator McCain has closely aligned himself with President Bush this time, but it fits in with McCain’s nature. McCain has been very, very skilled at remaking himself throughout his career. McCain is very much an opportunist, and he knows how to move in and position himself in the limelight and get out of the limelight when it’s necessary to do so. If you look at the entire history of this man’s career, it was — it began in a massive scandal that a lot of people forget about, the Keating Five scandal. It almost took him out of the Senate. And only because McCain cut his losses early in that was he able to survive that. It was the biggest Ethics Committee investigation in the history of the Congress, going back more than the Civil War period. It had had a similar type of scandal. McCain survived that by becoming what he later identified as “the straight talk express.” He acts like he’s talking straight. He presents an image that he’s talking straight, but there’s always something else going on behind the scene there. And the situation that happened in South Carolina and in the primary last — the last go-around, I think McCain came out of that experience and decided to make himself into the elder statesman. He has kind of held that role until earlier this year when he started to waffle with the Kerry camp and the Bush camp. And I think now he has just turned into your basic politician. It’s disappointing because Senator McCain could be leading the country at an extremely crucial time as the news items you pointed out earlier at the top of the show here, and we need to have someone who has the experience he has to be talking as he claims to be a straight talk express. And I don’t see that right now. This is a critical, critical moment in Senator McCain’s career. He will be defined, I think, by what happens and how he handles this period of time in his tenure in the Senate. And frankly, I think there’s a lot of questions floating around as to where he is, who is he? He’s like a chameleon right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is John Dougherty. He is a staff reporter for the Phoenix New Times. we’re a going to break and come back to our discussion of John McCain and look at his rise to prominence.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest right now is John Dougherty, a staff reporter for The Phoenix New Times, as we talk about the rise to prominence of John McCain. You talk about the Keating five. Very briefly, explain the scandal. Even people who lived through it and paid a lot of attention might have forgotten about it by now.

JOHN DOUGHERTY:Charles Keating was a financier based here in Phoenix who met with several senators, including Senator McCain, DeConcini, Glenn, Riegle, and Cranston.

AMY GOODMAN: DeConcini also from Arizona.

JOHN DOUGHERTY:DeConcini as well. And he placed pressure on those senators and asked those senators to make — to put pressure in turn on the chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board to change some certain banking regulations that would work in Keating’s favor. Keating wanted to be able to use savings and loans as basically merchant banks and not to have the regulations and requirements that banks up to that time normally had. That meeting — between the senate — a meeting did ensue between those senators and the regulator, Ed Gray. And that meeting became the impetus of the whole 'Keating Five' scandal — because Gray was protesting vigorously against making those changes in the regulations. I think a lot of people probably have forgotten but Gray was trying desperately to get Congress to pass legislation to support his regulations to protect the savings and loan industry. Soon after those meetings, the savings and loans started to fall like dominoes around the country, and we’re still paying off that fiasco. And that is the nut of the 'Keating five.' What McCain did differently than the other four senators is, when he realized the extent of the problem, he cut his relationship with Charles Keating immediately and totally, and severed a very close tie. They were personal friends, beyond a constituent-politician relationship. McCain was able to pull himself out of that scandal somewhat, and was not as seriously damaged as some of the other senators.

AMY GOODMAN: Ultimately, what was the outcome? What happened to the senators, and why didn’t McCain face the same —

JOHN DOUGHERTY:Well, Riegle lost, Cranston lost, DeConcini lost. The only two left are Glenn and McCain.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did McCain sa — I mean, he cut his relationship?

JOHN DOUGHERTY:He cut his relationship and he then went in through a period of his time in the Senate in which he became very, very acutely aware of appearances. If he’s going to help a constituent, he had to make sure he was doing it above board. He became — you know, he kind of receded into the background for a number of years.

AMY GOODMAN: But became a fierce proponent of campaign finance reform — to a certain extent.

JOHN DOUGHERTY:That was — that exactly was his claim to fame and re-rise to prominence was the campaign finance reform, which I find ironic because here’s a guy who never really had to rely on outside money. He had a personal fortune that he could rely on to get elected.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about that history.


AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Senator McCain’s record, going back to Vietnam. Give us a profile of him.

JOHN DOUGHERTY:After Senator McCain came back from Vietnam, his time as a prisoner of war, he went and worked in Washington, D.C., for the navy. He had a position in which he was over at Congress quite a bit. So he had an opportunity to scope the Congress and see where would be the best place for him to run. He wasn’t from Arizona; but he moved to Arizona, and quickly got elected to the — as a representative from the first congressional district. A key way — a key thing that happened there, prior to moving to Arizona, he married Cindy Hensley. Cindy Hensley is the daughter of James Hensley who controlled the largest liquor franchise in the state of Arizona. McCain went from a retired navy — I think he was a captain — with a very limited income, to a man who had a fortune in front of him. He did not have to work during that period of time he was running for office, which was in the early eighties for the House of Representatives. He also was befriended by the publisher of the Arizona Republic, and the Phoenix Gazette, and McCain immediately, a newcomer suddenly had an op-ed column on a regular basis in the Phoenix Gazette, where he was floating his ideas. He had a very difficult primary, it was a five-way race, I think it was in 1982, to get elected to congress. He hit the streets. He campaigned hard. He had a very well-organized campaign and he had plenty of money; and, boom, he was elected — he won the Republican Primary. If you win the Republican Primary in that district, you’re going to win the general election.

AMY GOODMAN: Before that, though, he had worked for his father-in-law’s company.

JOHN DOUGHERTY:He was employed by the father-in-law’s company. It wasn’t clear, really, what he was doing; but he had quite a bit of money. I recall that they — several hundred thousand dollars from — ended up helping him in his campaign from that company.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he won in ’82. Talk about the interests he represents. You write extensively about what you see as a serious conflict of interest between Senator McCain and the whole alcohol industry.

JOHN DOUGHERTY:Well, we thought that the — that aspect of his background had never been discussed, and even the national media had pretty much ignored it going into the 2000 election. There was no review of where McCain’s money was from, and when we worked on that story, we started to cross reference different types of activities he did when he was in the — Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee; and he was clearly —-they were either holding back legislation or preventing legislation from fully developing that could have done things to more tightly regulate advertising, particularly for the liquor industry and other aspects like that. So there was a conflict there that I saw (and I think the co-writer of that story, Amy Silverman, saw) that McCain, at the same time he was presenting himself as, you know, the champion of campaign finance reform and wanting to, you know, advance somewhat progressive issues, was also protecting the liquor industry. And he was basically only in Senate -— the United States Senate because of liquor industry money.

AMY GOODMAN: How was he protecting the liquor industry?

JOHN DOUGHERTY:Primarily by keeping that advertising bill from advancing. There was efforts to try to restrict advertising on liquor. He kept that bill from advancing to the Senate Commerce Committee for hearings.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact it was to allow the alcohol industry to start advertising again, right, because of the restrictions on it in the past?


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Dougherty, staff reporter for The Phoenix New Times. You write in your pieces about how sometimes John McCain would recuse himself because of the relationship, because of his family’s fortune coming from the alcohol industry; but it was that very act of actually not taking action sometimes. First there was recusal, then it was just not taking action that perhaps served the liquor industry more than — better than they could have hoped?

JOHN DOUGHERTY:I think he clearly was keeping the liquor industry’s best interests in mind. He did it in a very skillful way and it was a — You know, in his whole career it’s fairly minor aspect of it; but it was something that we think people need to know and people should be discussing. It reflects on this guy’s ability to move in and out of issues quickly, and he’s kind of a teflon-type guy.

AMY GOODMAN: The rise of his wife’s family in the alcohol industry, you also chronicle that, in-depth.

JOHN DOUGHERTY:The rise of his — that’s like a history of Arizona dirty politics. The Hensley family was involved with some of the most notorious — at least on the sides —- some of the most notorious crimes committed in the state of Arizona, primarily the bombing and murder of Arizona Republic reporter, Don Bolles, and it’s on the edge, but it’s there. The key guy in the Hensley empire was a guy named Kemper Marley. Kemper Marley was a liquor magnate. He controlled a lot of the land in central Arizona. Marley was implicated—- — never charged — in the murder of Bolles, and it was Marley who basically gave the liquor franchise to Hensley back in the 1950’s, and that built their empire from there.

AMY GOODMAN: Why would he want Bolles killed?

JOHN DOUGHERTY:They wanted Bolles killed supposedly because Bolles was writing a series of stories that were very critical of Kemper Marley, and Kemper Marley wanted to get a key position on the racing commission in the state of Arizona. This was back in 1976.

AMY GOODMAN: I remember when journalists got together to investigate Bolles death, ’cause it was the killing of a journalist in this country, and did a series of pieces. It was —

JOHN DOUGHERTY:Yeah, it was the founding project for the Investigative Reporters and Editors. It was a major, major effort that came out here, and it uncovered massive amount of scandal in Arizona from across the board in the political system as well as in the police department, and in a number of other issues; and, ironically, the Arizona Republic, which was the paper Don Bolles worked for, refused to run the story because the I.R.E. was critical of Senator Goldwater and his family as well. It never ran in the Arizona Republic. It’s pretty amazing.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator McCain’s relationship with George W. Bush, that comes later on. He himself ran for president. Would you say that what he’s doing now is positioning himself for a future run?

JOHN DOUGHERTY:Well it certainly looks like it; because, I mean, McCain was coming out very critical of certain aspects of George W. Bush, obviously, and now, you know, he’s cozied up to him very closely. What was the agreement that they had down in Crawford, Texas, when Senator McCain spent the night down there a couple of months ago, right after all the discussion about Kerry, you know, having talks with McCain for him running for vice president. The next thing you know, McCain’s hanging out with Bush down at the ranch. I think that’s a crucial moment. I don’t think it’s really been discussed or described. Exactly what is — what is —McCain hope to gain out of this? Because I feel like he is shortchanging the American public and not staying on the 'straight talk express' at this point and telling us exactly what he really does believe is going on, particularly in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night I was in Yuma. That’s on the border with California, the Colorado River. Very interesting place. Military base, the Yuma Proving Ground where they test the Apache helicopters that are used in Iraq. We were talking about the whole positioning of Arizona right now, and which way it will go, how significant it is. It’s going to be one of the places where the debates are next week — in Tempe right here, Phoenix, the debate between the presidential candidates. John McCain playing a very powerful role, throwing his weight behind president Bush fully — the famous picture of president Bush kissing him on the head. It’s gone beyond certainly just McCain supporting him. It’s as if they’re bosom buddies right now. You look at it following the year 2000, the year that Bush really attacked his family personally.

JOHN DOUGHERTY:It’s incredible. I think it goes back again to McCain has an image of being the statesman always taking the high road; but his history belies that. He’s an opportunist. He’s a consummate politician who’s able to remake himself into whatever bests suits him at the time. And I think it’s going to be — I think he has a clear choice right now. He can either become the statesman to tell us exactly what needs to be done from his heart and his soul, versus a guy who is trying to position himself for the future. He’s shortchanging the public right now.

AMY GOODMAN: What about his comments on Iraq — his latest comments on Iraq. You have senators like Senator Hagel who have talked about what’s going on in Iraq right now as 'dangerous'. What about Senator McCain?

JOHN DOUGHERTY:You know, I’m sorry, I can’t give you a specific thing about what he said, you know. I mean, give me a — you know — a time and place to talk about.

AMY GOODMAN: Just overall the position. He is now standing with President Bush on Iraq, having — you know — being seen in this country as — well, the premier Vietnam veteran, one who was imprisoned for years in Vietnam.

JOHN DOUGHERTY:Sometimes he’s standing with President Bush and at other times he says, we need far more troops in there; so he breaks away from President Bush at times, you know — on the swiftboat thing, too. That’s not exactly Iraq, but it’s a military-type thing. Sometimes he stands with Bush and then sometimes he’s jumping over to the other side. I don’t know where McCain is standing. He’s going all over the map.

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