John McCain photo

Interview with Roberta McCain by Katie Couric of CBS News

May 09, 2008

COURIC: Let me start with you, if I could. You eloped, I understand ... in Tijuana because your family didn't fully support your marriage to Sen. McCain's father.

ROBERTA McCAIN: That's right. You know, I see now what they're ... it took a long time for me to figure it out, but I was so young. And, of course, I was still in school. And, of course, they objected. And my... the only thing about them maybe. And I think she had, you know what, a sailor has a girl in every port. I think she heard that.

COURIC: Hopefully that wasn't true.

SEN. McCAIN: You were at the University of Southern California at the time.

ROBERTA McCAIN: Yeah, I was ...

SEN. McCAIN: Living in a sorority house, is that right?

ROBERTA McCAIN: Yes. Over the weekend, before my final exams in January, I took my text books to study that weekend, if you can believe that?

COURIC: When you were eloping?

ROBERTA McCAIN: Yes. Carried them with me 'cause I never looked at one of them. And went back Monday morning and took those exams. So that whole week ...

COURIC: How'd you do?

ROBERTA McCAIN: Oh, I passed.

SEN. McCAIN: Would you mention ... the establishment ... in Tijuana ... where the marriage took place?

ROBERTA McCAIN: Oh. I'm gonna kill him. It was Caesar's bar in Tijuana.

COURIC: Classy.

ROBERTA McCAIN: Yeah. In fact, it's still going. And that's where they invented Caesar salad.

COURIC: Wow.

ROBERTA McCAIN: The bartender was a man named Caesar.

COURIC: So you were a bit of a maverick. Is that where your son gets his streak?

ROBERTA McCAIN: I don't know. I was just young and stupid.

SEN. McCAIN: Now, now.

COURIC: But it all worked out.

ROBERTA McCAIN: Oh yes. Oh I never questioned one moment of that. It was the right thing. I knew that I ... was terribly in love. And I knew that it would be for life, and it was.

COURIC: Your dad, Sen. McCain, was a distinguished naval officer, your husband Mrs. McCain. And he was away a lot. Did that make the two of you grow very close as you were growing up?

SEN. McCAIN: It really did. Particularly during World War II when he was gone almost all the time. Like ... so many who served in the military in World War II. They just went until the war was over. But he came back, I think, two times or three times...

ROBERTA McCAIN: I think three. I don't remember.

SEN. McCAIN: To get new submarines, [the] submarine commander would get new submarines to replace his older one. And that is the only time we saw him. And we drove across [the country] as a family. And she would stop at every historic place, and at (unintelligible) taverns, at the hermitage, at whatever place of historic interest or value.

You know, it was tough in those days driving across the country with a family by yourself. She did it with steadfastness. And ... made it very interesting. And so ... I think, particularly growing up in the earliest years ... we became very close. As my Dad is (unintelligible), but ... she kept him alive. She talked about him all the time.

COURIC: He would be gone for months at a time.?

ROBERTA McCAIN: I'd say three or four. He was in submarines. And ...when it needed maintenance that's actually, this is what's so wonderful about our country. When I see how many years it takes to build something or fix a bridge, they put out a new submarine every single solitary month in World War II. So you would take three or four at sea. And then that also wad be assigned a new submarine. That's why he would come back.

COURIC: So he'd be gone for three or four months and the come back?

ROBERTA McCAIN: Yes. Because ... they would take a new submarine. And a younger officer would take over the one that you left.

COURIC: That must have been hard for you too as ...

ROBERTA McCAIN: Really, I must have been oblivious. And I just always have been a very happy person. I just take things as they come. And, maybe just through stupidity. I didn't go through all the rigors that people seem to think ... I don't know.

SEN. McCAIN: But I think, also, isn't it true, Mother, that all of America was kind of in it together?

ROBERTA McCAIN: Yes. No question.

SEN. McCAIN: ...had left. And it was the war. And so it wasn't, you know ... today it's kind of unique. And the Vietnam War was kind of unique in that a small number bore the greater part of the burden. And I think one other thing ... and my mother can talk about it more than I can, is that her identical twin sister lived in, and still does, live in Los Angeles. And we went and stayed with her for ...

ROBERTA McCAIN: Oh yes. I had no place to go. She had three children and I had three children under 10 years old and no help.

COURIC: But you all lived together or stayed together ...

ROBERTA McCAIN: Yes. Well, not for terribly long. What do you say? Three, four months? Six? I don't know.

COURIC: That was nice to have her, though.

ROBERTA McCAIN: Oh sure. We had a marvelous time. Can I tell you one thing?

COURIC: Yeah.

ROBERTA McCAIN: We were really stuck with these children. You know ... there's nothing. So ... we were invited to a lunch and my father heard us talking ...and he said, "Well, I'll take care of the children." So that was wonderful.

And, of course, we stayed away too long. And when we drove up my father was out on the front lawn with six children. And he had the keys in his hand. And he said, "Well, I used to read those English novels about nannies and nurseries." He said, "Now I know why England is surviving."

And he never offered to take care of those children again (laughter).

COURIC: I'm sure. Well, a lot of my friends who work for a living, you know, they can't wait ... to get back to work when they have to ...

ROBERTA McCAIN: With those children. And he had six of them. All under 10.

COURIC: Wow. Let me ask you about what was Sen. McCain like as a teenager. Because I know you referred to him as a scamp.

ROBERTA McCAIN: Well, he was just one of those kids, and always kind of in and out of minor, me being mad at him, or something. He was just fun to be with.

COURIC: But he got into a lot of trouble?

ROBERTA McCAIN: I don't think so. I don't seem to remember that much, well, he certainly he ... I don't think he ever got in, no, he never got in any real trouble. 'Cause he wouldn't have been able to stay in school.

COURIC: What did you mean by calling him a scamp?

ROBERTA McCAIN: See, he was different to this thing. Johnny really was kind of ... he really was a leader. All of the boys around his age, they all ... he was just a leader. And they would gang around in our house. And, well, he was, you know, he's naturally very funny, or was then.

I think he's curbed a lot of that humor. And I think some of it because they ... my thing is that they criticized Senator Dole ... and he was funny. And instead of that people saying he was not a (unintelligible) man. But he was funny. And he was fun to be with. So, of course, when you're around with somebody that's kind of halfway, you know, I don't know. He was just one of those natural, young, American boys ... in my definition.

COURIC: You had said that Sen. McCain's more like his father in that you hold grudges, but he doesn't.

ROBERTA McCAIN: Yeah, he won't hold a grudge unless ...

COURIC: How can you not hold a grudge ... and be in Washington as long as you've been, Senator?

SEN. McCAIN: Well, I think Katie, that you find out over time, and it does take time, and it's kind of a waste of time.

ROBERTA McCAIN: I'd know that.

SEN. McCAIN: I had kind of a defining experience many years ago where a fellow came to my office named David Ifshin (phonetic spelling), who had been one of the leaders of the SDS ...

COURIC: Many of our viewers won't even recall that that was a very large anti-Vietnam War movement.

SEN. McCAIN: And we sat down we talked. And he said, "I think we ought to put our differences behind us." And I did. And we worked together to try to help human rights in Vietnam. To help the Buddhist end. And to restore normal relations. Well, David, unfortunately, died at a very early age.

And I ... feel so much better that David and I had a reconciliation and were able to work together. Look, I have differences with some of my colleagues in the senate. And I'm not close friends with some of them, to say the least. But I think it's important to, when you have differences, to put them aside and move on. And that was hard for me to learn. But I finally did. I think I'm a better person for that.

COURIC: I know, during your son's captivity, Mrs. McCain, you had to believe in your heart that he had died to get through every day.

ROBERTA McCAIN: No ... I only thought he had died the first two days.

COURIC: Oh really?

ROBERTA McCAIN: The first ...

COURIC: How were you able to get through all those years when your son was in captivity?

ROBERTA McCAIN: Well, I do have faith. I have faith in God's will and that's all I ask for. I don't have particular things I ask for. And if I profess that I have faith then I have to do it. And it's like these ... all these other things, people, they go ... those things weren't very hard for me.

I just ... if you can't do something about something, don't waste your time on it. And I couldn't do anything about that. I could maintain my dignity and the things that I'd always claimed that I believed in, God and my country. And I believe in the Vietnam War. And one pretty good proof about the domino theory is (unintelligible), Cambodia and Vietnam what today are communist. And they weren't before the Vietnam War started.

SEN. McCAIN: Is it true, though, and Katie might be interested, and that one of the things is that with most people you didn't talk about me.

ROBERTA McCAIN: Oh no. I never said a word to anybody.

COURIC: Wasn't that hard?

ROBERTA McCAIN: Well, why bring it up?

COURIC: How worried were you, Senator, about your mom and dad and three young children?

SEN. McCAIN: I was most worried about my family and that they didn't know what was happening to me. And I think that was harder, in some ways, on my father because he was a commander of all the U.S. forces in the Pacific. And, in 1972, he was told to bomb, order the bombing of B-52s in Hanoi. And he knew that I lived in Hanoi.

That my prison camp, one of them, was there. And, of course, he carried out ... those instructions and gave the orders without hesitation. But it's still pretty tough on a father, you know. I think, in some ways, the strain on him was ... in some ways more difficult and of greater.

ROBERTA McCAIN: Oh yeah. Every single night he prayed on his knees. And I have ... a prayer book of his, an Episcopal prayer book where, you know, your hand finally will just be oil, and wear the paper out, those papers are just worn out. They were just ...

SEN. McCAIN: So it was tough on him. But he was a very brave person and dedicated to the Navy. And I know it's maybe a little off the subject, but it was a generation that he represented of the pre-World War II Naval officer, military officer.

They all came from the same place. Either West Point or the Naval Academy. And certainly they had their failings and flaws. But there was a certain kind of-- apolitical attitude that most of that generation had of pre World War II military officers. My mom may dispute with me, but I think Herman Wolk's book-- Winds of War is one of-- and War and Remembrance is one of those great stories where you kind of get that flavor. I recommend it very-- very highly. (Laughter) Don't you think?

ROBERTA McCAIN: Yes. When he says that the military was apolitical, it was. On an officer's (unintelligible) report they would put PI, which meant political influence, and they scorned it. And that was a mark against you. I don't ever remember politics being ... discussed in my whole married life.

COURIC: It's really about honor, wasn't it?

SEN. McCAIN: And it ... wasn't all perfect. We weren't ready for World War II, as you know. That wasn't so much the military's fault, but also it was a kind of insularity. And it was good for the military, in my view, to take and have the officer corps from, frankly, all walks of society.

From colleges and given more enlisted people. There were still some. But more enlisted people to become officers. So I think, overall, it was an improvement. But there was kind of some unique qualities about the pre World War II military officer that was very interesting and admirable.

COURIC: Let's talk about politics and this campaign. As you both know, Sen. McCain's age has been brought up quite a bit, because he will be the oldest president ever elected to a first term if he wins in November. Has your mom given you some good tips on staying fit?

SEN. McCAIN: She certainly is an example I site quite frequently (laughter) when the subject comes up. Obviously, as you can tell, she's in excellent health. And I claim that I inherited all those genes from her.

COURIC: You don't like when your son's age is brought up, do you?

ROBERTA McCAIN: No. No, I don't mind. You know ... in politics there are pluses and there are minuses. And it's true. One year's old could have a minus. But when you think about the experience, and what he's accomplished, and the legislation that he's been able to get through, as opposed to a man who, two years ago was in the state legislature at-- Illinois. So that is a big minus in my view of ...

SEN. McCAIN: That's why I have to take her with me wherever I go.

ROBERTA McCAIN: With someone with so little experience. And then who has the most liberal of record of voting in the United States. And I'm no liberal. So of course I think that it's over (unintelligible) on the Republican side.

COURIC: You speak your mind don't you? (Laughter) I know that, back in January, you said the Republican base was offering no help whatsoever ...

ROBERTA McCAIN: That's true.

COURIC: ...to your son. (Laughter) Now that he's become the nominee do you think he's getting the help he needs?

ROBERTA McCAIN: I don't know. I really don't know. And I'm not equivocating. I don't know anything about it.

COURIC: Do you feel, though, that the Republican Party is behind him enough?

ROBERTA McCAIN: I think they are a lot wiser than I am. And they know ... how to do this. I don't. So I really ... and I'm not really trying to get out of this. I ... haven't thought about it. And I would assume that they know what they're doing, and they're doing the way that this should be run politically.

COURIC: Do you ever say, "Mom, please zip it!?"

ROBERTA McCAIN: It won't do him any good.

SEN. McCAIN: (Laughter) I was gonna say, I think at 96 she probably has earned the right to express her views. And I think, Mom, if I could just add on, I think our party ... is united. I think we have a lot of work to do, obviously. But primaries are always tough. And ... we're pretty much together.

ROBERTA McCAIN: Yeah. Well, I'm ... I don't know. I assume that it's the way it should be.

COURIC: Some of your opponents, Senator, have said that you are the equivalent of a third Bush term. How can you convince voters that you're not gonna be more of the same?

SEN. McCAIN: Well, obviously, a view of my record, which there has been differences on climate change, or the war, or spending. But the important thing I think about every election, and this one probably more so than many recently is that how we're gonna have a plan of action and vision for the future.

Americans are going through a very tough time now. Housing issue. People are sitting around the kitchen table who have just lost their jobs recently and suddenly. So I think they're very interested in what you can do to help them better themselves and their lives and their futures. And I think that's what most voters would focus on. And I have to give them that vision. And I have the vision and the plan of action. But I've got about six months now, I think, in order to convince them. And it's gonna be a tough job.

COURIC: I know you've talked about this, Sen. McCain, but ... I want to give you just a moment to clarify it. Often the criticism against you, vis-à-vis Iraq, is that you're going to commit U.S. troops for an additional 100 years. What exactly did you say and why do you think that's been so misinterpreted?

SEN. McCAIN: What I was saying and what I say today is that after we win the war in Iraq, when they have an esca... a security arrangement with the Iraqis after the Korean War we kept troops in South Korea. It was a buffer for our security.

After the war in first Gulf War we have a base in Kuwait. It's not American presence. It is American causalities that Americans care about. And I'm gonna win this war. And I'm gonna bring our troops home and I'm gonna bring them home honorably.

And if we do what Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton want to do, I am convinced that we will be back with greater sacrifice of American blood and treasure. And a year ago, Katie, I said to you I would much rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. We are succeeding in Iraq. And I'm not going to take a course of action that I believe will endanger American lives and cause us to have more sacrifice. And I'm convinced to that.

COURIC: What do you say ... a troop presence? How many troops are we talking about senator?

SEN. McCAIN: It would depend on the security arrangement. But, again, it's ... the same kind of deal we have with South Korea. We have with Kuwait. We have with Japan. We have with Germany. We have troops, as the world's super power, in a lot of places in the world.

After the war is over, and it will be over, and we will bring the troops home with ... honor and victory, then we will discuss those arrangements with the Iraqis, just as we did after the Korean War with the South Korean government. And I don't know of anyone who objects to having American troops in South Korea.

COURIC: Mrs. McCain, you were born before women had the right to vote.

ROBERTA McCAIN: Yeah, that's right.

COURIC: And I'm just curious how you feel about the first serious female candidate for president of the United States, just the very notion of that how...

ROBERTA McCAIN: I think it's a wonderful idea. I don't see any difference between a man and a woman. Except physically. They're stronger than we are but the rest of that I think that ... what's happened with women and is already been ... proved. You don't have to argue about it.

COURIC: Have you talked to Sen. Clinton, Sen. McCain, lately?

SEN. McCAIN: Not recently, I haven't, Katie. I just haven't had the chance to run into her.

COURIC: You think very highly of her.

SEN. McCAIN: I respect her. I respect Sen. Obama. And we intend to run a respectful campaign.

COURIC: You and Sen. Clinton ... had a noted drinking contest in (Laughter) Estonia. And I understand she ... drank you under the table. Is that not right? Can you confirm that senator?

SEN. McCAIN: That is the most exaggerated story in history. We had a drink together after a long day. And that was really all there was to it. Really, that's all there was too it. I know it makes for exciting conversation but it just that just simply wasn't the case. But we did travel together. And we've worked together on the Armed Services Committee.

COURIC: Who would you rather run against? Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama?

SEN. McCAIN: It doesn't matter. I have no choice in the matter, so we just have to run our own campaign. Each, according to some experts, have, you know, but it's all gonna be about my campaign.

COURIC: Some people say ... the longer this goes on the more damaging it is to the Democratic Party. Are you encouraging Sen. Clinton to stay in the race? (Laughter)

SEN. McCAIN: No, but, you know, I've heard two sides of that argument too Katie. One is that ... the dissention between the two of them ... helps me in ... that the differences that are exploited between them. The other argument I hear is, well, they're out there motivating people to register as Democrats.

And motivating their base of ... So I don't know what's the right answer. But I ... think, also, that most Americans really start focusing political campaigns after the conventions. Which is, you know, the end of august, the beginning of September. And then I think they'll be focusing a lot ... on our campaigns and making judgments of that. Just as in the primaries, as you might recall, people really didn't start focusing until after Labor Day this last year.

COURIC: What is the most exciting part about the potential of having your son in the White House?

ROBERTA McCAIN: I don't have any.

COURIC: Come on.

ROBERTA McCAIN: I'm true ... it's true. What happens will happen.

SEN. McCAIN: How about being able to go to ... any of the museums any time day or night? How's that?

ROBERTA McCAIN: That's another matter.

COURIC: What do you think is the most exciting aspect of your son's potential presidency?

ROBERTA McCAIN: I'm amazed ... how well rounded he is on so many subjects. When ... just out of the blue people ask him questions ... and he knows as much as he knows. Honey, everything about the McCain family is just 100 percent (unintelligible) right or wrong ... that's it.

SEN. McCAIN: But could I also, in the interest of full disclosure, mention that, from time to time, we have spirited discussions.

ROBERTA McCAIN: Oh yes.

SEN. McCAIN: Because we don't always agree.

ROBERTA McCAIN: We do have. (Laughter)

COURIC: What is the biggest issue of disagreement?

ROBERTA McCAIN: It's such ... I'm not gonna worry about it.

COURIC: You can't tell me?

ROBERTA McCAIN: No.

SEN. McCAIN: Sometimes it's ...

ROBERTA McCAIN: I don't want to fight on television. (Laughter)

COURIC: What are these big issues?

SEN. McCAIN: Oh no, hey look, hey look. One thing about my mom, she really does keep up. She watches the news. She reads the newspaper. She carries them around with me. And so it's kind of issue of the day kind of thing when we...

ROBERTA McCAIN: That's right.

SEN. McCAIN: ...when we discuss. What do you think about this? And ... we're pretty well in tune. (Laughter)

COURIC: But once in a while...

SEN. McCAIN: Oh yeah ... and I think its fun. Because I think it's wonderful ... that she is this well informed. And she mentioned that, at a very early age, she got married to a naval officer. I challenge you there's hardly a museum or a church in Europe that she doesn't know or hasn't visited. And I mean it. She has really enriched her life by studying, reading and travel. And I'm proud. And she still does it.

COURIC: At 96 you're still doing it?

ROBERTA McCAIN: Oh sure. I was up there last week in New York just to go to the Metropolitan ...

COURIC: You're amazing.

ROBERTA McCAIN: No ... do you want me to sit around and play bridge every day? Or discuss my last knee replacement? (Laughter) Or pass around pictures of my grandchildren? Well, that isn't my choice of a way to live. I love to. That's one reason I live in Washington is art museums are open seven days a week, and they're all free, and you can't say that about another city in the world.

SEN. McCAIN: That's nice. That's nice.

ROBERTA McCAIN: It's true.

COURIC: Finally, Sen. McCain, if I could ask you a day-of-news story, you know, Myanmar has been in the news should much. If you were president, what would you do to convince the military government to allow international aid into that country to help the thousands - perhaps millions - of people who have been displaced by this?

SEN. McCAIN: Did I mention one of the great honors of my life was, a long time ago, I had the incredible honor of meeting (unintelligible) in Burma. There's no greater living person in the world today, you know, who has sacrificed so much for her country.

I think (unintelligible) and China have great influence over Burma. I would start putting some pressures on their appealing to them to have this (unintelligible) at least allowing aid to care for these people. It's really awful. It's an awful government when they have to find out that one of these catastrophes is happening by outside radio and not even warn their own people. They find out by outside communications. This is a very bad government. And right now I think that we should ask the other countries in the region, as well as China, that they have close ties to, to really put some pressure on them for humanitarian purposes.

COURIC: Do you think enough is being done about it?

SEN. McCAIN: I don't know. The Chinese have an imagine problem right now, as we know, over Tibet. I think we could tell them that it would help their reputation if they weighed in heavily to ... get the... I use the word government loosely... to help ... let assistance come in this humanitarian effort.

COURIC: It's Mother's Day. What are you going to do for your ma for Mother's Day, Senator?

SEN. McCAIN: Tell her how beautiful she is.

John McCain, Interview with Roberta McCain by Katie Couric of CBS News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/278145

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