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McCain on Blagojevich: A rare combination of stupid and nuts

December 11, 2008 |  8:36 pm

Arizona Republican Senator and unsuccessful presidential candidate John McCain on the David Letterman Show 12-11-08

(UPDATE: Show video added below.)

Republican Sen. John McCain knows Rod Blagojevich, the legally challenged Democratic governor of Illinois.

Appearing on David Letterman's show tonight, now that his presidential campaign flopped and Katie Couric doesn't want to interview him anymore, the Arizona senator said he met the state chief executive soon after Blagojevich's 2002 election, in which he ran as an ardent proponent of reform and change in the way government is run in Springfield.

"He came to my office one time after he was elected governor at his request," McCain recounted. "And told me he was going to be a great reformer."

Is that right? an incredulous Letterman asked. (BTW, we have a show video below and the complete interview transcript on the jump; just click on "Read more" below.)

"I'm not making it up," replied McCain. "That he wanted to do like I had done in the Senate and have all these reforms. (Pause) I really must have impressed the guy."

Letterman then asks McCain if Blagojevich is either stupid or nuts.

"I think a rare combination of both," McCain replies.

On the new Obama administration in general and specifically McCain's

Armed Services Committee colleague Hillary Clinton as the new secretary of State, the defeated presidential candidate had this to say:

"I think she is extremely knowledgeable on the issues. I think it’s a good team and I think it’s a very wise choice.

"And I would like to say that I think that President-elect Obama has made a number of very wise choices, which I think shows a centrist approach to government, which obviously, the way America and the world is today, is necessary. So I applaud his selections. 

"I’ll vote against him, but…"

He was smiling.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credit: CBS         (Transcript below here.)

Arizona Sen. John McCain on "Late Show with David Letterman," Dec. 11, 2008.

David Letterman: Our first guest is a decorated war hero, currently serving his fourth term as United States senator. Please welcome your senator from the great state of Arizona, John McCain, everybody.

John McCain: You’d have thought I won.

DL: You look … by the way, you look great. You look like maybe you lost a couple of pounds. You look tremendous.

JM: I did lose weight, trying to make sure I didn’t miss this show.

DL: Now after a campaign like this -- and it consumed two years, probably more, really -- what do you do? What has your life been like since? I mean, you go from going a thousand miles an hour to a much slower pace.

JM: I don’t want to talk about the bleeping campaign. Understand? If you think I’m going to go back to that bleeping situation, then bleep you.

DL: OK. Whoa. Do you know this guy, the governor of Illinois?

JM: He came to my office one time after he was elected governor, at his request. And told me he was going to be a great reformer.

DL: Really? Is that right?

JM: I’m not making it up. That he wanted to do like I had done in the Senate and have all these reforms. I really must have impressed the guy.

DL: Now, John, in your experience, and this is what everybody is saying –- the guy is either stupid or he’s nuts. What do you think?

JM: I think a rare combination of both.

DL: That’s what it sounds like. Oh man.

JM: Look, all I know is what the media carries, but apparently he knew he was being tapped so he makes a phone call telling how he’s going to put a Senate seat up for sale. You can’t make that up, you know?

DL: What would be -– you know we had some trouble here in New York with our governor. A different kind of deal. He should resign -– Blagojevich should resign. And what will happen if he doesn’t?

JM: I don’t think he’d have a lot of public appearances. This kind of thing, for a moment of seriousness, just … look, public service is the most honorable thing you can do. And when something like this happens -– and all of us are human -– but the fact is, this is not good for the morale of America at a time like this.

DL: No. Absolutely not. And I believe he actually replaced a guy who went to prison, didn’t he? The former governor?

JM: Republican. Yeah. So I guess in Illinois it’s kind of a bipartisan …

DL: Bipartisan criminal activity.

JM: I’ve been told that in Chicago they take care of the underprivileged lots, all of their citizens, including the deceased.  By allowing them to vote all the time.

DL: Yeah, getting out the vote. 

DL: Now let me ask you a couple of questions about the condition, the face of the Senate now, because I think there are still some seats that have not been resolved. Is that correct?  First of all, our good friend Al Franken and Norm Coleman in Minnesota. What do you know about the outcome of that race? It was less than 500 votes after the election.

JM: I understand that it’s down to about 200.

DL: 200?

JM: The complexities of it are that when you get that close, you get into examining every single -– were there disputed ballots. Now I’m told it may be Christmas.

DL: Is that right?

JM: That’s what I’m told.

DL: And can the race be decided by a single vote, as we hear so often?

JM: I think it could, but there was one time in the past where there was one of these extremely close elections and the Senate, that has to certify, basically said they should have another election, and they did. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case here. But it’s one of those -– that’s one of those things. The lesson is, my dear friends, every vote counts. Every vote counts. 

DL: And now, a state very near and dear to your heart, Alaska. They lost a senator. Now what’s the status of that seat? It’s still open?

JM: Sen. Stevens is gone. They have a new senator. He was former mayor of the city of Anchorage.

DL: So that’s all been taken care of.

JM: That’s taken care of.

DL: And Illinois, who knows? It goes to the highest bidder.

JM: It’s not free but it’s reasonable.

DL: Oh yeah, you’ll make your money back. 

DL: Here in New York City with the -– by the way, do you think Hillary Clinton is a good choice for secretary of State?

JM: I do. I do. I’ve traveled with Sen. Clinton to a lot of places in the world. I think she is extremely knowledgeable on the issues. I think it’s a good team and I think it’s a very wise choice. 

And I would like to say that I think that President-Elect Obama has made a number of very wise choices, which I think shows a centrist approach to government, which obviously, the way America and the world is today, is necessary. So I applaud his selections. 

I’ll vote against him, but …

DL: Now what about this. I don’t know anything about secretary of State, and then when her name came up, people are saying if there is any distance, any light, any divisibility between the president and the secretary of State, it’s a failed nomination. 

And that of course means that the secretary of State is the walking, living breathing conscience of the president of the United States. And, moreover, don’t hire somebody you can’t fire. Now, with those two things in place, is it still a good choice?

JM: Yes. One -– I am … Sen. Clinton has been around a long time. And she recognizes who the president is and who the secretary of State is. But she brings, when she travels around the world, instant credibility, a certain element of celebrity. And being a representative of the United States, that’s one of the major functions of the secretary of State, is show -– visibly show -– an American presence abroad. 

I think she’ll do well.

DL: But with every breath has to represent the views of the president.

JM: I don’t think they’re in that much disagreement, No. 1. And No. 2 is that elections have consequences. And the president-elect should be able to select a team that he or she wants. And so …  you know, you and I had a long discussion about my selection of the vice presidential running mate. We don’t need to go into that again … I think he’s made a wise choice in secretary of State. I think he’s made a number of very wise choices.

DL: A popular choice for secretary of State. It’s a popular choice, I believe. Certainly among Democrats. I’m just wondering, with that criteria is that a strong ...

JM: Yes.

DL: And again here, that leaves a vacancy. And someone said, now, as secretary of State, her political career is over. Is that how you look at this?

JM: No. No. I think that one of the frustrations -– and I don’t want to get into all the minutiae, but Sen. Clinton was one of the most powerful senators in the Senate.  But she still had not seniority. 

So some of that is a bit of an inconvenience when you have to wait till the other more senior senators – who we all know, have one thing in common: They are not given to short statements. So I think she probably sees this as a better opportunity to serve the country. 

DL: So that leaves a Senate seat open here in New York. Here in the city, everybody -– a lot of newspaper coverage directed toward Caroline Kennedy. Following a legacy of Kennedys representing the state of New York. And I think that would be a lovely thing. Do you have any thoughts on that?

JM: I have great admiration and respect for the Kennedy family. As a matter of fact, Ted Kennedy and I have become very good friends over the years and worked together. We don’t agree, but we work together. So I believe it would be a wise choice. But honestly, I don’t know who else -– enough about who else would be under consideration.

DL: Well, you’re looking at somebody else. Right here.

JM: Yeah, that would be …

DL: We’ll be right back with Sen. John McCain, everybody.

DL: We’re back with Sen. John McCain, ladies and gentlemen.

JM: Can I say thanks for having me back, Dave. I appreciate it.

DL: Thanks for coming. You’re always great to have on the program. You make me look good and I appreciate that. Even when you don’t show up, you make me look good.

JM: You knew we had to bring that up.

DL: I’m sorry. I’ve always –- and if you don’t want to talk about this, I understand. I’ve always been envious –- and I don’t even know if this is true. Arizona … and I think you have a ranch. Am I right about that? Do you have a ranch in Arizona?

JM: Actually, we have a place, it’s not exactly a ranch, up near Sedona. It’s really beautiful. Very beautiful.

DL: Red-rock country up there?

JM: Yeah, it’s so lovely up there.

DL: And what kind of things do you do there? It’s not a ranch, but do you have animals?

JM: We hike around. We don’t have animals. But there’s 67 different kinds of birds. It’s beautiful. It’s a chance to really relax and a chance to really enjoy nature and the beauty of my state. And the older you get, the more you appreciate it.

DL: You appreciate it. That’s absolutely true.

JM: The kids … we really spent a lot of time up there when they were small. It’s one of the great -– I can’t tell you how wonderful it is.

DL: And knowing it intimately, from living there, have you noticed a change in the patterns of weather? Anything that may lead you to believe that there’s trouble ahead in terms of the climate?

JM: I definitely do. I think it’s warmer. I think that climate change is taking place. I just visited a little country that is a fascinating place called Bhutan. And they’re up in the Himalayas. 

And the glaciers in the Himalayas are melting. And there are lakes up there. And those lakes can burst and go down through that valley –- those valleys -– and kill lots of people. 

Before I was there, I was in a country called Bangladesh, Dhaka. One-meter increase in sea level and 30 million people either drown or are displaced. 

DL: That’s a risk. We’re talking about four feet or so.

JM: Exactly. This is serious stuff. We cannot ignore climate change as we address the economic issues. In fact, this is an opportunity to adopt clean technologies as we get out of this economic disaster that we are facing.

DL: Now, John, to me, and I’m nothing but an alarmist and a ninny, when you say that the sea level rises another meter, to me, there’s nothing we can do. Let’s say we all live to be 500 years old. There’s nothing we can do that’s going to turn that around.

JM: I think there’s a lot of things that we have to do. We have to try. We have to understand that we can’t give our kids a planet that is –-

DL: Absolutely true.

JM: And there are things that we can do, ranging from conservation to nuclear power to solar to wind to tide to putting incentives for automobiles that will -– I mean, there’s a million things we can do.

DL: But it has to come as a governmental mandate. Doesn’t it? Almost entirely. Because private sector and private sector and private sector, that’s all well and good.  But unify –-

JM: We have to have government incentives, but I think it is in the private sector. For example, nuclear power. I think that nuclear power is safe and so it’s their interest if we can encourage the use of solar, wind, tide, all of those. 

We have been able to accomplish in this country everything we’ve ever wanted to do if we put our minds to it. And we can. And finally, we’ve got to stop paying $700 billion, or whatever it is, to import oil from countries that don’t like us very much.

DL: Speaking of things related to petroleum, what about the Detroit, the automakers, the $24 billion, the request was double that or whatever it was. How do you feel about that? 

JM: I worry that it's -– I worry that we may be giving them $15 billion and then two months from now they’re going to come back for more. I think there has to be more stringent requirements on how they use the money, what they do with it, how it’s oversighted, and I don’t think this proposal guarantees enough that we will see real concrete results and we just don’t come back. 

However, the devastating effects of the three major auto employers in America shutting down are devastating. So we’ve got to work with them to make sure that there is this kind of strict oversight, the kinds of steps are taken so that we don’t revisit this disaster. 

Look, one time, some years ago, Leyland in Britain -– the ones that made Triumph and a lot of names only old geezers like you and I remember, and they propped them up. They still went out of business. We want to make sure that whatever proposal this is, it keeps them in business.

DL: Give them whatever they want. Just give them whatever they want and then say, OK, but half of your business, all three of you guys, half of your business has to be devoted to the design, production and assembly of alternative-powered automobiles. 

And then that will create huge numbers of new jobs so people, in fact, not losing their jobs, getting more jobs, and if they’re limited to a certain percentage of burning fossil fuels, and then they’re relying on hydrogen or solar or electric cars, and they build enough of those, then it’s a win-win, as the kids say. You get people working and … that’s not going to work?

JM: Yes.

DL: And tax incentives apply for that kind of development.

JM: Absolutely. And whatever it takes to incentivize it -– and also, I think we have to, and all due respect, renegotiate some of these labor contracts that every time a car is built in Detroit, it’s $2000, from the beginning more expensive than another car manufactured in the United States. So we’ve got to have renegotiated agreements.

DL: Let’s make it a new deal. I think we’ve invoked that phrase in the past …

JM: FDR. That was when you first went on television.

DL: We’ll be right back with John McCain.

DL: OK.  Now I kind of know a story that I’d like you to tell. And I hope it’s true and I hope I have my information correct on this. Has to do with holidays. And you’re a kid in the Navy, 1965. 

Your mom loads you up. You’re flying some place in a Navy jet and she loads you up with Christmas gifts for family. So far so good?

JM: Yes. So far so good.

DL: Alright. Take over.

JM: Much to my surprise and dismay, the engine quit. And to make a long story short, I had to eject. And all of the Christmas gifts were incinerated as the plane crashed.

DL: Thank you, Santa.

JM: I crashed one airplane in the bay of Corpus Christi in pilot training. I ejected from an airplane when the engine quit that you were talking about. I somehow impacted some power lines in Spain with my airplane but landed the plane safely. 

And, of course, as you recall, I intercepted a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane during the Vietnam War –- which is no mean feat. So I owe the government a lot of money.

DL: Wow. I mean, I know fighter pilots are trained for these things, but what happens when you feel the heat go out from under you in one of those deals.

JM: An enormous shot of adrenaline. And then you do what you’re trained to do. You know, you just go through procedures that you were trained to do. When I was flying over Hanoi, I was in the dive when I was hit by the surface-to-air missile.

So the plane was –- it took the wing off, so I was gyrating very violently, so had to really eject, I mean react, immediately. 

Years later, the Vietnamese told me that my chute opened almost just as I hit the water of the lake in the center of the city. The escape and evasion part of this story is very brief. 

Especially since I’d broken both my arms and a knee, and they dragged me out of the lake. 

Next to that lake, there is a little statue and it shows a guy with his hands in the air on one side and the Vietnamese -– well, the most insulting thing, on one side it says “USAF.” And I was in the Navy. That’s very insulting. 

And on the other side it says “26 on October 1967 the Famous Air Pirate was shot down. John McCain was captured.” Yeah.

DL: The Air Pirate.

JM: You know, you don’t get a lot of statues. At least before you die. And I’ve got one there. So anybody who visits Hanoi…

DL: All right. Senator, great pleasure to see you. Thank you very much.  Have a wonderful holiday. It’s the Air Pirate, John McCain.  ###