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John McCain: 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' Not A "Civil Rights Issue"

First Posted: 07/13/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:30 PM ET

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Yesterday afternoon, Air America White House Correspondent (and friend to Eat The Press ) Ana Marie Cox interviewed Arizona Senator John McCain for her forthcoming Air America radio show. The big news from that interview? Some frank discussion on the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. McCain made note of the fact that he had "served with gays" during his own military career, and that they "served honorably." However, McCain reiterated his support for the policy, and stated, pretty bluntly, that he didn't consider the matter a "civil rights issue."

Air America has a clip from the interview, which will air in its entirety this weekend, on their website.

MCCAIN: "I know that I have served with people who are gay, I know that. They just didn't say it. I didn't ask, and they didn't tell. Okay? Let me also remind you, that the foremost obligation of any president is to preserve the nation's forces, and that's to have the best possible military that you can possibly have, and therefore, policies concerning the military should be tailored to one object and one object only, and that is how we can best secure our nation's security...and improve our nation's defenses. We are not in a draft. We do not draft people into the military, anymore. And so, people voluntarily join up. And they know what the policies are when they join, regardless of what their orientation is.


COX: Well, Lieutenant Colonel [Victor] Fehrenbach was actually outed by a civilian. He wasn't even out to his family...

MCCAIN: I'm not aware of the circumstances. I know that there are many gay individuals who are serving in the military, and serving honorably, under the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. And so, I don't know the details, but in most cases, it is because they've either made the declaration themselves, or there have been circumstances which make it ... obligatory where the issue be addressed. I know that's the case in most cases, there may be exceptions to it. I'd be glad to discuss this further, but my position is clear. The job of the military is to defend the nation. The job of the leaders of the military is to do that in the most efficient, effective manner, with a minimum of sacrifice of American blood and treasure.

COX: But, sir, one of the many things that I respect about you is your expertise on the military. You have a lot of it, and you are saying that in this particular issue, however, you don't want to voice an opinion. You have an opinion on lots of different things, I know...

MCCAIN: My opinion is shaped by the view of the leaders of the military. The reason why I supported the policy to start with is because General Colin Powell, who was then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the one that strongly recommended we adopt this policy in the Clinton administration. I have not heard General Powell or any of the other military leaders reverse their position, just like when on other issues, that people are expert and knowledgeable of, I rely on their opinion. But this is unique. These military leaders are responsible for the very lives of the men and women under their command, and that's why I am especially guided, to a large degree, by their views.

COX: Now, you know that Truman de-segregated the military through executive order. And he did it against the wishes of some people in the military. There were some studies that had been shown and some panels that suggested that integration was actually good for the forces.

MCCAIN: Let me tell you again. Colin Powell was asked exactly that question, as an African-American. He was asked that question exactly, and he answered it hundreds of times. And he said, "I do not equate ethnicity with sexual orientation." I agree with him.

COX: Well, actually, there's something to that, because obviously, right now there's no segregation at all of gay people and straight people because we don't know who is gay. So I guess I have to ask...

MCCAIN: But the two issues are not comparable. So I'm not sure why you'd bring that up.

COX: I think they're comparable in that they are both civil rights issues.

MCCAIN: Well, you are entitled to your opinion. But I don't think so.

But what could make the biggest splash in the news is something that isn't featured in this clip -- McCain's insistence that had he been elected President, he would have, from day one, opened an investigation into whether the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy was effective or necessary. And that's a lot more than the Obama administration has offered on this issue.

I spoke to Ana Marie about this aspect of their interview this morning, over the phone.

Q: I think that people might look at this and say, "Well, it's easy for McCain to say he'd do this if he were President now." Do you find McCain to be credible on this issue?


ANA MARIE COX: I find him credible. Mind you, I don't think that he's going to be a leader on this issue, because he's from a generation that just didn't talk about these things. But I think that deep in his heart, he's a fair guy, and I do believe that he thinks the idea that openly gay people cannot serve in the military is bullshit.

Q: And yet, as of today, gay people are not allowed to serve in the military! How can he claim this isn't a civil rights issue?

ANA MARIE COX: I can't claim to understand that. I think that what he tells himself is that military commanders say this is the best policy and that he trusts them. But he feels strongly enough about the matter that he'd open an investigation. I can only hope that his willingness to revisit the issue as a hypothetical President carries over to his actual role as a ranking member of the Armed Service Committee. The fact is that this policy makes us less safe, and people who care about national security need to make this a priority.

Q: Do you think he'd be prepared to be proven wrong?

ANA MARIE COX: I think so. You look at the broad arcs of his career, you'll see that there are places where he's changed his mind about stuff. Climate change, for example, immediately springs to mind.

Q: Do you think that he's influenced at all by people like his daughter, who's been an outspoken supporter of gay rights, or Steve Schmidt, who's also been really vocal about legalizing gay marriage?

ANA MARIE COX: Well, I think it's fair to say that he's not going to become some fighter for gay rights. But McCain is an admirer of [Barry] Goldwater, who also became an outspoken supporter of gay rights toward the end of his career. He does care about the issue. He cares enough to talk about it. During our interview, he could have tried to change the subject, hang up, shut me down.

Q: We've both been critical of the Obama administration's lack of effort in taking up the matter after so much talk of change. Do you think that McCain saying that he'd be further down the road on this matter is going to be something that spurs the White House to finally act?

ANA MARIE COX: The White House hasn't demonstrated a lot of receptiveness on this issue. I think the answer is no. I'm very pessimistic. You'd think that McCain would provide some political cover for them, to go at least as far as McCain suggests he would. But, no, I don't see that happening.

You can hear Ana Marie's full interview with John McCain on "The Inside Story," airing on Air America Stations nationwide this Saturday at 9:00 A.M. and Sunday at noon. And, to sweeten the pot, you will also be able to enjoy a roundtable discussion with Ana Marie, the Washington Times' Christina Bellantoni, and yours truly! "The Inside Story" is also available as a download, and on iTunes.

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