Q&A with John McCain
McCain on Guantanamo, global warming, immigration, Iraq, Iran, creationism, gay marriage, and flag burning.

(FORTUNE Magazine) -- The last act of Brainstorm may well have been the most anticipated: Aspen Institute chief Walter Isaacson and Fortune's Eric Pooley teamed up to question Senator John McCain. The following transcript, typed on the fly by our intrepid bloggers, captures the highlights of Senator McCain's remarks.

McCain's opening comments:

"I'd like to say a few things about the Supreme Court's decision yesterday on the whole issue of detainees in Guantanamo Bay. The good news is that it has unstuck the process. The administration has been saying they were waiting [for the ruling.] The Court said two things: the court said they should be handled under the Unified Military Code of Justice.

The UMCJ does not guarantee all the rights [that the civilian court system does], but I think it's basically a fair system. The other was the admonition to adhere to the Geneva conventions. I'm not surprised by that either.

What I'm hoping is that we can start a hearing in the Armed Services Committee, and, as soon as we get back from our well-earned recess, we can push the issue forward.... Guantanamo has become a symbol around the world that is not good. I've always believed it was not the facility, but the lack of movement. [The fact that detainees are not getting their day in court.] You've got some bad guys in there, but you may also have some innocent people.

Finally, climate change is real.... The fact that we have not done more about it is a crime to our children and grandchildren.... I travel a lot around the world, usually at your expense, and [I've seen the effects of global warming.] I think we need to stop arguing whether it's happening.

Climate change is real, and we need to begin to start figuring out how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The trick in my mind is to get business to see that reducing greenhouse emissions [is in their economic interest.] Lieberman's and my cap-and-trade legislation should have gotten more attention....

Nuclear power, in my view, is not only a viable, but a very important element in our effort to reduce our dependence on foreign oil... Let me remind you that the Europeans have moved forward long ago on nuclear power. It's a question of psychology not technology.

Pooley: What's your take on the nature and tone of the debate in Washington around immigration?

McCain: I could cry. It's become highly personalized. Very unfortunate. It impedes our ability to come together on these very important issues. I always wonder why an issue becomes the issue. In the case of illegal immigration, it's been building and building and building for 40 years, and finally it's reached a snapping point.

Governors are angry, sheriffs are angry, hospitals are angry. It now dominates the media, especially the talk shows. It keeps getting stoked and stoked. It seems that, in democracies, issues just sort of bubble up. On the issue: I do not understand [those that say we just need to enforce our border.]

We must have a comprehensive approach, and we who are the sponsors are more than open to considering various options, but we can not accept the premise that a stronger boarder will reduce the fundamental root causes [of illegal immigration] and we can't avoid the 11 million people who are already in the country.... We can't say all we need to do is enforce our borders.... As a Republican, I've tried to point out to my colleagues is that the worst case scenario is to go into the November election having done nothing. 95% of polls say Republicans want to do something on the issue.

Isaacson: Will you have a bill?

McCain: I can't say that. I can say there's active talking on the issues.... I believe the chances are fairly good.

Question: Might it be better off to wait?

McCain: Every day we wait, more people come across the border. Every day that we wait, more people die in the Arizona desert. Last year 400 people died. One was a two year old.... Over 50% of the people that cross the border from Mexico come across the Arizona border... [Everyone says:] enforce the border first. I've been trying to say to them we're enforcing it [we're pouring billions into enforcement.] And, if we started on a guest worker program tomorrow, that would take time.... My proposal is that you have to have a tamper proof visa/ID...

As you know it's called the Amnesty bill. You can call it whatever you want. You can call it a banana. But it does not qualify as amnesty.... We're not forgiving anyone, we're not pardoning anyone.... [MCCAIN describes the tough process for getting the proposed guest worker status.] I'm not afraid to demagogue a little.

I don't really want to have to call an American soldier who's fighting in Iraq and say we've deported his parents. I'm unashamed to say that I'm working with Senator Kennedy. Senator Kennedy knows how to get things to done.... If you want to talk allot, that's fine but if you want to pass legislation that takes [crossing the aisle.] The issue should transcend party politics. Why should it be a partisan issue?

Isaacson: Would you close Guantanamo

McCain: I'd try to, and I think the President wants to. It's become a symbol around the world that's clearly not helpful.

Pooley: On Iraq what would you do now?

McCain: Pray. Pray. Pray. The one thing I wouldn't do is paint an optimistic picture. I wouldn't say that just because Zarqawi went to his special place in hell that was reserved for him, that we've got this conflict solved. "Mission accomplished," "Just a few dead-enders," [remember those?]

Question: Do we need more troops?

McCain: We've never had enough troops, and that was something that some of us were so distraught about. It's two steps forward, and one-and-a-half back.

We've had success training their military, but we haven't had much success training their police.... The bad news is that it took them five months to form a government. Well, they've got a government. There are some good things happening, but it's going to take a long time.

What's the formula for success? I remind you that the nature of insurgency is that there isn't going to be peace talks on the deck [of an aircraft carrier.] The end of the insurgency comes when there is a better economy. More jobs. [These will] gradually put down this insurgency....

What's the key? It's the Iraqi military taking over. The key is Iraqis doing the fighting and dying, and Iraqis taking over.... Americans are not yet ready to set the date for withdrawal.... The classic way to fight an insurgency is not what we did in Vietnam under Westmorland. [Landing in a place with lot's of firepower and then leaving. The insurgents just gradually re-emerge.] What does work is you take an area, and you hold it, and you expand it, and you make the lives of those people normal.

Pooley: Can we get the job done with the troop levels we have now?

McCain: Yes. Because politically I don't think we could pass some proposal [to send over another massive wave of troops.] We are politically dependent on the Iraqi military and the Iraqi government.

Pooley: Can we train their troops?

McCain: Yes.

Isaacson: Speaking of Arizona. Sandra Day was in here and she pulled out the Constitution [and said that it's great advantage is that it is short and simple and broad. Do you feel that the Constitutional amendments for flag burning and gay marriage are necessary?]

McCain: I guess it's the eye of the beholder... I believe states should regulate marriage.... I happen to believe in the sanctity of the union between man and woman.... But I'm a federalist.... On the issue of flag burning, umm, there's a certain amount of showmanship, but it's also [true that] our constituencies have very strong feelings about this.

Isaacson: You tried to fight the amendment for gay marriage.

McCain: Yeah, and I've never seen more partisanship and lower ratings.... [I read a poll for Republicans that put approval at 20%.] At that level, you're getting down to paid staff and blood relatives.... On the flag burning, we did try to pass a law to prevent the desecration of the flag, and they were rejected, and that's why we felt there was a need for an amendment....

Question: [About media and the recent publication by the New York Times of the federal call tracking program.]

McCain: If we feel national security has been jeopardized, we should find the people who gave that info to the media in the first place. Do I think the New York Times was correct in printing it? No I don't.

If you really want to hold someone accountable, why not try to find the person who did the leaking. There's a lot of turmoil now.... I don't think I've ever seen the media under more assault than I have in recent times....

Pooley: If you decide to run again in 2008, what would you do differently?

McCain: I wouldn't do anything differently. Look, after I lost in South Carolina, I slept like a baby: I slept two hours and woke up and cried. Political campaigns are tough. But we've got to have the town halls, [and the open conversation.] You've got to make it enjoyable. [Bush won because he ran the better campaign.] The best man won. He had the entire Republican Establishment behind him. He was more organized....

Q&A with the audience

Question: On Iran, are they just playing a game with us?

McCain: In the shows over the weekend, I saw Senator Lugar, who I respect as highly as anyone in America, saying we should have direct talks with Iran. Now, what Senator Lugar says carries great weight, but let me say cynically, we've been talking about two party, five party, seven party talks...but what is the motivation of the Iranian people to give up something they think is very good idea for their country? What is the motivation of our Asian Elvis, who would be forgotten tomorrow -- he has the GDP of Des Moines -- [were it not for his nuclear threat?] I wouldn't get my hopes up just because we agree to two party talks [that the problem will be solved.]

But, finally, it is a serious, serious threat. When the President goes to the United Nations and repeatedly announces that his policy is the annihilation of Israel..this is serious, serious stuff....

[Yes, our] President says he hasn't taken the military option off the table, but he's also said he's pursuing every option. The acquisition in Iran of a nuclear weapon would destabilize the Middle East...Everyone would feel the need to have one too [Saudi Arabia, etc.] And, I'm sorry to say in the 21st century, this is only the first [such problem given the ease of construction of nuclear weapons.]

Question: What changes would you make [in how Democrats and Republicans are working together?]

McCain: I would demand that the American people demand that we sit down together...One of my earliest political memories was Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neil standing together [announcing the passage of the 1983 legislation to save Social Security.] But now the Democrats cheer when the President said his social security bill had been defeated in his State of the Union.

Why should we cheer that we can't fix a system that we have to fix for our children and grandchildren. No one denies that the system is going to go broke. We need to sit down together and fix Medicare and Medicaid because they are a catastrophe waiting to happen....

Stewart Brand: First, what do you think of Al Gore's movie and is it helping your cause.... The second thing is, one of the issues of nuclear energy is the enormous amount of waste. [Would you support the U.S. moving to a system of re-processing such as the French have?]

McCain: ...On Kyoto: we needed to have China and India. We're not going to sell Kyoto to the American people without China and India. On the issue of waste, I've always been in favor of re-processing. Yucca Mountain is the worst kind of [shameful situation.] We can't [put waste in their because] it's only good for 10,000 years? Now, I worry about the future, but God Almighty!

Question: [What's your stance on teaching creationism in schools?]

McCain: I think that students should be exposed to every theory and every thought that we can...I don't like communism, but I think students should be exposed to communism.... There are people that believe this is the the way the earth was created. I'm not saying it should be forced on them, but I don't get this dispute....

Question: But in science class?

McCain: I'm not on the school board. I'd let them decide that. One of our fundamental beliefs is local control...

Tom Downey: [The former congressman from New York -- and Clinton-Gore advisor -- compliments McCain on his positions with regard to money in politics, but takes issue with the Senator's earlier comments on the Democrats cheering during President Bush's State of the Union. Downey says the reason the Democrats "staunchly opposed [the legislation], was that it was fundamentally a bad idea. If the President had the courage to show up with a real plan," things might have been different.

McCain: I thank you for your friendship and your service of many years....The President, when I was with him, began his speeches on the subject saying that the Social Security Trust Fund was broken, and we have to fix it... Were the private savings account too heavily involved? [Maybe, though McCain thinks they're not a bad idea.] I knew that we were in trouble, and I understand why the Democrats stood up and cheered, but I'm not sure that 20 years ago you would have had the same reaction. [And, he allows, it could just as well have been Republicans cheering]

Question: [Questioner introduces himself as being born in Iran, and having come to the U.S. when he was 18 -- to the "Land of Liberty." He says the last five years have significantly diminished his feeling that America is still the Land of Liberty.] "As a man of peace, I'm disturbed, you think that Iran having a nuclear weapon would disturb the balance power, but Israel, Pakistan, India, etc. [having them wouldn't.] It sounds disingenuous.

McCain: You're welcome to your view, but none of those countries have announced their dedication to the extinction of their neighbor.... If Iran somehow had a freely elected democratic candidate [who did not say they were against the state of Israel,] I would not be nearly alarmed as I am.... The day the Iranian government says we're going to live in peace, that's the day I'll look more favorably [on them.]

[Closing]: I'd like to say we face numerous challenges, both foreign and domestic.... On the foreign policy front, just a few years ago we look back on as golden era. Domestically, it's time that we Americans got back on track.... We have a lot of work to do. But I am fundamentally an optimist. I still travel around the world and in most cases people look up to America. We're a long way from the end of history, as far as America is concerned.

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