Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
Southern Republican Leadership Conference
Memphis, Tennessee
March 10, 2006
[transcript]
 
Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you very much.

Isnít he marvelous?  Isnít he just everything?  He is just everything we in the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan and George Bush ever stood for.  And I thank God for J.C. Watts.  And may I say following him I feel a bit like Zsa Zsa Gaborís fifth husband who on the wedding night said, ďI know what Iím supposed to do, I just donít know how to make it interesting.Ē  Itís kind of a cute line you know.  I find it goes over best at Republican womenís club meetings.  But one time in Washington I was about like the fifth or sixth speaker in line and it went on and on and so I said I feel a like Zsa Zsa Gaborís fifth husband da da da da daÖ  The speaker who followed me immediately was Senator John Warner.  He was not amused.

I thank you.  I want to say a word about Haley Barbour.  What a governor.  What a man.  What a job heís doing.  Do you know that his wonderful wife Marcia has been to the coast over a hundred times on behalf of those people who are still suffering from hurricane Katrina.  She's marvelous.

And of course my old friend Trent Lott.  Boy Iíll tell you, he gets it done, he gets it done, and they are really wonderful.

I want to--I just also want to say a couple of words about your two senators.  There is no one in America that knows more about education or is a greater advocate of education, a finer man than Lamar Alexander and thank you for sending him; he's marvelous. When I want to know something about a number of issues, but especially that, heís the leader in this nation. And of course our great Majority Leader in the United States Senate, Bill Frist, who has done an outstanding job under the most partisan environment I have ever seen in the years that Iíve been trying to do the Lordís work in the city of Satan.  I want to tell you he labors long and hard, not only on behalf of the people of Tennessee, but throughout this nation.  Youíve got a wonderful State Chairman in Bob Davis, and I want to thank you all for your hospitality.

Now, first of all, Iíd like to ask for your sympathy for the families of the state of Arizona.  Because Barry Goldwater, from Arizona, ran for President of the United States; Morris Udall, from Arizona, ran for President of the United States; Bruce Babbitt, from Arizona, ran for President of the United States; I, from Arizona, ran for President of the United States.  Arizona may be the only state in America where mothers donít tell their children that someday they can grow up and be President of the United States.

I had a dear friend named Morris Udall who ran in 1976.  He was one of the funniest men and he once said, because he was a member of the House, he said, ďIf youíre a United States Senator, unless youíre under indictment or detoxification, you automatically consider yourself a candidate for President of the United States.Ē  I think heís right.  You may remember in the last campaign there was some conversation about me being Vice President of the United States--wasnít clear which party--but there was that conversation as you may know.  And I think I was on Jay Leno and he said, ďWell Senator, whatís this about you being Vice President?Ē  And I said, ďYou know Jay, I spent all those years in a North Vietnamese prison kept in the dark, fed scraps.  Why the heck would I want to do that all over again?Ē  So--

And I am happy to be here with you tonight and Iíd like it if you remember one thing that I have to say tonight, I thank you, I thank you, I thank you on behalf of every one of us who is privileged to serve in elected office.  You have done a wonderful job.  Every single one of you could be someplace else tonight.  Thank you for being here particularly at this crucial time in the history of our party and America.  Thank you and God bless you for that.

I know many of the media view this conference, at least in part, as a beauty contest for potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in Ď08.  Well, you can see Iím no beauty.  Iím older than dirt, I have more scars than Frankenstein, but Iíve learned a few things along the way.

And one of the things Iíve learned is to concentrate on the problems at hand and let the future work itself it out.  Our most immediate political priority isnít the Ď08 presidential race, itís the Ď06 midterm elections, and weíve got to do it, and weíve got to win.  All of us must remain focused on that.  And we have to maintain our majorities in both houses, and winning governorsí races from Tallahassee to Montgomery to Columbia to Columbus to Atlanta, Little Rock, Austin, and Lansing.  And my friends, donít think it isnít going to be a tough fight, ícause it is.

Our most important national priority, however, is the far tougher and more consequential fight:  The war in Iraq and the war against Islamic extremists.  There is much more at stake in this war than an election.  The fate of the world may hang in the balance and we should all of us keep our personal ambitions a distant second to standing with the President of the United States, our Commander in Chief--and the troops he has the honor to command, in good times and in bad, in a difficult and costly struggle that makes this dangerous world another safer and better place. Straw polls are entertaining my friends, even extremely early ones, but I think we have bigger things to worry about.  So if any friends are thinking about voting for me, please donít.  Just write in President Bushís name.  For the next three years, with our country at war, heís our President, and the only one who needs our support today.

Now Iíd like to give you a little straight talk on some issues, some of which you may not agree with.  But first of all, I think we should look back with pride on the accomplishments of a Republican Congress and a Republican President.

We have a strong economy; we have low unemployment.  Carol Jean Jordan, the Chairman of the Florida Republican Party, told me tonight unemployment in Florida is three percent thanks to the leadership of a great governor named Jeb Bush and a Republican legislature.  Our unemployment is low, our economy is strong, our nation is strong, our defense is strong, our military has never been more capable and we have a great deal to be proud of.

And another one is that we have now two United States Supreme Court justices who will be be as the President campaigned--Judge Alito and Judge Roberts.  And I want talk to you just a minute about that, and I donít want to take too long on it, but you know, it used to be that when presidents were elected that they had kind of the benefit of the doubt.  We all know that when presidents are elected one of the most important aspects of an election is the appointment of Supreme Court justices.  President Bush made it very clear the kind of person he was going to nominate for the Supreme Court, and yet there was 42, 42 Democrats that voted against Judge Alito, a good and decent man.  Now thatís reprehensible, my friends.  Judge Alito deserved everybodyís support.  And let me just remind you I voted for Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer.  Why?  Because President Clinton was reelected.  Did I agree with him?  No.  But now the environment has become so poisoned that we had 42 Democrats that vote against a good and decent and honorable man.  Well, itís too bad.  Itís too bad that we happen to be gridlocked by the Democrats time after time, including yesterday which Iíll mention to you in a minute.

Now I want to tell you something else.  President Bush was re-elected as, among other things, Commander in Chief.  I believe that the UAE are good friends of ours, they are people who--my God, Iím astonished.  Our Navy ships have made more than 700 visits into the port of Dubai, more than any outside the United States of America.  They are serviced by UAE personnel.  There are missions being flown into Iraq as we speak, and Afghanistan, out of Dubai.  My friends, thereís two wars going on.  One is the war on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Another is a war for the hearts and minds of the people of this country--of the world, of the Arab world.  I would have at least allowed the president the 45-day delay before we had [inaud.? hammered him].  And I think the president, the president deserved better.  But itís over.  But now we have to understand that we do have friends in the Arab world, and we need to make more friends if weíre going to win this war for the hearts and minds of people there.

My friends, weíre in the middle of a scandal.  You know that, I know that.  You know weíre in the middle of scandal in the middle of Washington.  Itís called Abramoff and Cunningham and all of that.  And itís very unfortunate; itís very unfortunate, and we need to fix it.  And you know as well as I do the confidence of people in Congress is very low.  Last poll I saw 25 percent of the American people say they approve of Congress.  We can and we must and we will fix this problem, and we have to do it.

Now, thanks to the leadership of Bill Frist we have brought a bill to the floor of the United States Senate which would change the lobbying rules and would make some changes which I think are very important.  And we have brought this bill to the floor--bipartisan fashion: Trent Lott and Chris Dodd; Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman.  And we were moving forward with it.  We were moving forward with this reform which I think the American people want.  Guess who stood up with an extraneous amendment about the ports and stopped everything in the United States Senate?  The Senator from New York, Senator Schumer.  My friends if we donít get reform, if donít get reform, you can put the responsibility for it right at the doorstep of the Democrats in the United States Senate.

Now whatís wrong?  Whatís wrong?  Is it lobbying?  Look, lobbyists are good people; theyíre decent people.  Every American has the right under the Constitution to petition their government. Itís a system thatís gotten broken and gone terribly out of control, and itís called earmarking and we have to fix it.  Do you think that we ought to spend $2 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana?  Now I donít know if thatís a paternity issue or a criminal issue, but itís got to stop. My dear friends in 1984, Ronald Reagan vetoed the highway bill because it had 152 pork barrel projects in it.  152.  Ronald Reagan in his own inimitable style said, ďI havenít seen this much pork since I gave out blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair.Ē  Now on the last highway bill it was 6,140 earmarks.  My friends thatís your money.  One of íem was a bridge to nowhere in Alaska for $233 million to a place that has 50 people in it.  We cannot do that with American tax dollars. We cannot do it.  We cannot do that.

The President of the United States has called for a line item veto.  Iím happy to tell you that last week Bill Frist proposed a line item veto.  We need to pass a line item veto, and we need to do it very quickly.  But we also need to stop this.  We should have the willpower to stop it without a line item veto.  Iím all for a line item veto; thank God Bill Frist is pushing it.  But weíve got to stop this and itís up to us to stop it.  My friends, one of the pillars of the Republican party is those who believe in fiscal discipline and smaller government.  Weíve got to go back to that.  We have to make some tough decisions. And we cannot spend everything on anything that happens to come down the pike, as you know.

Social security.  Now tough decisions have to made.  I believe that the President of the United States did exactly the right thing after he was elected to go to the country to ask for us to reform Social Security.  Why?  Because we all know that no working American today, young working American, will receive the same benefits as present day retirees.  Look, I stood fifth from the bottom of my class at the Naval Academy, but even I can figure out that youíve got this much money coming in, youíve got this much money going out, and at some time--2012 or 14 or whatever it is--youíve got more money going out than going in, and at some year youíve got no money left.  Are we going to wait until thereís no money left?

The President of the United States did exactly the right thing.  Now did you see when the President gave his State of the Union message and when he said we were unable to reform Social Security, and the Democrats stood up and cheered.  Stood up and cheered?  How can you do that?  What is that about?  We have to fix Social Security.  One of my earliest and cherished memories is when Ronald Reagan and Tip OíNeill stood in the Rose Garden and said, ďWeíre going to fix Social Security.Ē And there was tough medicine associated with it.  My friends, weíre going to have to fix Social Security and Medicare, but before we do that, we have to go to the American people with clean hands, that weíve limited all this wasteful spending.  Before we ask them to sacrifice, we have to sacrifice.

Now I just want to talk to you about two more issues and then weíll go out and enjoy the evening.  First of all, Iran.  Iran may be the single gravest threat that America has faced since the end of the Cold War, absent the whole issue of the war on terror which is a long twilight struggle issue as you know.  If the Iranians acquire nuclear weapons which we are hell bent to do that, then my friends, we are in trouble.  A nuclear-armed Iran with missiles to deliver it threatens not only Israel but destabilizes the entire Middle East.

The President of the United States has done exactly the right thing.  Exactly the right thing by going to the United Nations Security Council, which we will for sanctions.  And I believe that now it depends on whether China and Russia decide to veto or not in the United Nations Security Council.  And my friends, we should make it clear to both those countries that it will dictate our relations with those two nations.

Now the President said, I think very appropriately, we cannot take the military option off the table, and heís right.  Now, he also says that weíve got to explore and pursue every possible option, but we cannot take that pressure off the table, that leverage off the table.  Now put yourself in the position of the Israeli government, where the President of Iran has gone to the United Nations and called for the extinction of your nation.  My friends, this is serious stuff.  Stay behind the President on this, pay attention, and letís get this resolved.  And we will be steadfast and prevail.

In Iraq.  Iraq.  Iraq, as you know, continues to be a very difficult situation.  It is very, extremely difficult and tough, and Iíll be glad to have an academic discussion with you as to whether we should have gone into Iraq or not.  I still believe we should.  I believe that Saddam Hussein would have acquired weapons of mass destruction.  Sanctions were breaking down and the fact is that he had used weapons of mass destruction twice in the future and I believe he would again.  And if you donít think that oil for food program was a scandal, Iíll provide you the information.  Billions of dollars were being siphoned off.

The fact is that anybody that says the President of the United States is lying about weapons of mass destruction is lying.  So thereís three pillars to success.  One, training and equipping the Iraqi army, which weíre making progress on, so that Americans can be removed from the battlefield area, the Iraqis handle their own responsibilities.  Training the law enforcement of the Iraqis as well.  Formation of a government.  They have to form up their government so people can look at it, can support it.  As you know, on December 15th they voted.  Now we need to pressure them for it.  Third of all, of course, is economic development.  Theyíve got to have a better life.  In many parts of Iraq things are a lot better; some parts of Iraq, a little straight talk, things are not better.  And weíve got to do everything we can to make their lives better. As you know, people want economic well-being, then they're interested in democracy.  Itís gonna be long, itís gonna be hard, itís gonna be tough.  We must stay this course.

Now let me tell you just one thing.  When we lost in Vietnam and we left, Ho Chi Minhís successors didnít want to follow us.  They wanted to build a workersí paradise; now theyíve got a capitalist paradise, but they didnít want to follow us.  You read Zarqawi, you read Bin Laden-- we leave Iraq, theyíre coming right after us; theyíre coming after us my dear friends, and thereís a great deal at stake here.  And we have a border thatís not secure, so whatís at stake here is enormous as far as the consequences of failure is concerned, including destabilization of the Middle East.  The benefits of victory--democracy is an interesting and contagious disease.  It will spread throughout the Middle East.

But most of all, I want to tell you, I go out to Walter Reed, I visit with our wounded soldiers out there, I know many in this room do too--Brooke Army Hospital and Bethesda.  These are the best and finest people in the world.  They are the best of us.  They are wonderful, they are brave, they are courageous, they know that they shed their blood in a noble cause--someone elseís freedom.  And I promise you, you can be so, so proud of them and proud of them as Americans, as I am.

And they remind me, if I could conclude, of another young man that I knew a long time ago far away, by the name of Mike Christian.  Mike Christian came from a small town in Selma, Alabama.  He joined the Navy when he was 17 years of age, and he then went to officer's candidate school and became an A-6 pilot and was shot down and captured about a year before I was in 1966.  Mike Christian had a keen and wonderful appreciation for America and the military and all that it has to offer.

Now for a long time the Vietnamese kept us in solitary confinement, or two or three to a cell. Thanks to the efforts of thousands of Americans on our behalf, including those who wore bracelets with our names on it, the Vietnamese changed our treatment and put us in cells of 25 or 30 in each cell.  I happened to end up in a cell with Mike Christian.  The uniform that we wore in prison was a short sleeve blue shirt, blue trousers that looked like pajama trousers, sandals that were made of automobile tires cut out.  I recommend them highly.  One pair lasted me five and a half years.

As part of this change in treatment, the Vietnamese allowed us to have packages with small articles of clothing in it from home.  Mike Christian got himself a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth, and fashioned himself a bamboo needle.  And he sewed on the inside of his shirt the American flag.  Every evening we would put Mikeís shirt on the wall of our cell and say the Pledge of Allegiance.  Now I will freely admit to you many times during our experiences when we say the Pledge of Allegiance itís not too meaningful.  I can assure you in that cell--a couple of those guys had already been there seven or eight years--it was the most meaningful, important part of our day to say the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag and our country.

One day the Vietnamese came into our cell, found Mikeís shirt, removed it, came back that evening, opened the door of the cell, called him out, and right outside the door of our cell beat him very badly for a couple of hours.  At the conclusion of which they opened the cell, threw him back in, and, as you can imagine he was in rather bad shape.  We did what we could to make him feel better and nurse him a bit.  The cell in which we lived had a concrete slab in the center of it which we slept, and there was a naked light bulb in each corner of the room that shone 24 hours a day.

As I said, we tried to help Mike as much as we could.  I went over to lay down to go to sleep on the slab, and as I did I happened to look in the corner of the cell.  Sitting there with his bamboo needle, and a piece of white cloth, and a piece of red cloth, and another shirt, underneath that naked light bulb with his eyes almost shut from the beating he had received, was my friend Mike Christian making another American flag.  He wasnít doing that because it made him feel better; he was doing it because he knew how important it was for us to pledge our allegiance to our flag and our country.  Mike Christian is one in a long, long line of brave Americans who are serving our country today with honor and valor in defense of someone elseís freedom, and weíre grateful for them.  Thank you and God bless you.