In 2004, Senator John McCain was laying low. With President Bush running for re-election and primary season in full swing, the Arizona senator largely kept to the sidelines.
But four years ago this month, he sat down with MTV News' John Norris for a frank discussion about the state of the world, the 2004 election and whether he would ever consider running for office again. Many of his answers are surprising in retrospect.
MTV News, 2004: Four years from now, whether or not the president is re-elected, is there a chance we might see the "Straight Talk Express" hitting the road again?
John McCain: I think it's very unlikely. ... We had a kind of magical moment [in 2000]. A lot of things came together that I think would be very difficult to do again. And one thing I would hate to be is somebody who goes back in and would lose. ... It's a long time away, but I doubt it. [Smiling.] I'm not gettin' any younger!
A lot can transpire in four years: Political tides ebb and flow, circumstances change. What's different now? Back in March of '04, the war in Iraq was one year old. YouTube didn't exist. And the price of gas was only $1.73 per gallon. (The average price last week was $3.24.) And John McCain said it was "unlikely" that he'd run for president again.
Today, McCain is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and although his stance on several topics has apparently changed, he's the same charming and quick-witted senior senator from Arizona. He's always been a champion of campaign-finance reform, ending corruption and stopping corporate influence in Washington. As a Vietnam veteran and former P.O.W., he's also been a strong supporter of the military. Much of his "straight talk" is still about war and terror.
"My main reason for running for president is because I want to make you safe," McCain said during MTV's Presidential Dialogue in December. "I want to give you a safer world. ... We're in two wars as we speak and [struggling] against radical Islamic extremism."
He also remains a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, if not the way it's been conducted.
MTV News, 2004: Does the lack of weapons of mass destruction change your opinion at all about the wisdom of going to war?
McCain: I think we did the right thing. ... I know that America and the world is better off with [Saddam Hussein] gone. But the important thing is, fix our intelligent system, because there's still a lot of threats out there. Iran. North Korea.
As he did in 2004, McCain also continues to rail against the dangers of pork-barrel politics.
MTV News, 2004: A lot of young people see [the presidential candidates] and say, "This is all about money — who's got money and who can raise the most money." I think a lot of young people probably don't even realize how [earmarks] can be legal.
McCain: Over the years, the system has become so corrupt that the appropriations committee just adds all these terrible things ... They gave $10,000 to the town of North Pole, Alaska. I know the elves and Santa were very happy!
However, McCain's stance on one issue he talked about candidly during our interview four years ago has apparently changed significantly: gay marriage.
MTV News, 2004: I don't know if there's any group of issues that so point out the division in the country as the so-called "culture wars." Do you think that same-sex unions, with all the rights of heterosexual unions, are an idea whose time has come?
McCain: There's many of us who are not comfortable with this issue, and I'm one of them. Primarily because I hate to see legislation and government involved in people's lives. ...
But society is changing. We now have a don't-ask-don't-tell policy in the military. When I first came into the military, that would never have been possible. Society is evolving. Whether it's evolving for better or for worse, I'll let someone else make that judgment.
In 2006, McCain voted against a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have banned gay marriage. For the most part he's managed to avoid the subject in the current campaign season, though he has said he is in favor of leaving the issue up to the states.
His recent statements on the topic are few and far between, mostly limited to a paragraph titled "Protecting Marriage," which is outlined on the "issues" section of the senator's Web site.
"John McCain believes the institution of marriage is a union between one man and one woman," it reads. "It is only this definition that sufficiently recognizes the vital and unique role played by mothers and fathers in the raising of children, and the role of the family in shaping, stabilizing, and strengthening communities and our nation.
"As president, John McCain would nominate judges who understand that the role of the Court is not to subvert the rights of the people by legislating from the bench."
Another topic that has changed dramatically for the worse in the past four years is the genocide in Darfur, which received comparatively little attention at the time. Today, the Arizona senator says if he had been president, he would have handled the situation in Darfur differently.
"I would've made it a higher priority, and I'm not saying that I could've been more successful," McCain said during the Presidential Dialogue. "In Darfur, as we speak, there have been at least 250,000 people slaughtered and millions more displaced from their homes. After the Holocaust we said, 'Never again.' And after Rwanda we said, 'Never again.' I think Americans and the people of the world who love peace, are tired of saying 'never again.' "
Another subject that didn't get much play in 2004 is the environment, which, in the days before "An Inconvenient Truth" and the Live Earth telecast, didn't have the urgency it's taken on in recent years. McCain has been extremely vocal about it in this campaign.
"I believe that climate change is real," McCain said during the Presidential Dialogue. "I believe we are in danger of handing off to [young people] a damaged planet. And I'm convinced from having traveled all over the world ... I've seen it in the South Pole, I've seen it in northern Norway, I've seen it in the Arctic Circle."
The senator went on to proclaim the importance of developing green technologies like electric cars and solar and wind power, even.
Another significant change from McCain 2004 concerns President Bush. At the time, the senator allied himself with the president, but now, particularly regarding the war in Iraq, he's speaking out.
"I understand the anger. I understand how people, after four years of a failed strategy, would want to abandon Iraq," he said during the Presidential Dialogue. "Watching this train wreck and how painful it was and how much sacrifice we've made of young men and women who are your age ... it'll go down as a black chapter. I argued against it, and I said I had no confidence in [former] Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and I said we had to change the strategy. The strategy is now succeeding."
McCain has worked hard to invigorate the image of the Republican Party. Still strong on defense, he's one of the most vocal proponents of the troop surge in Iraq, but he's worked to broaden the dialogue beyond the "politics of fear."
But can he fulfill the promise of his predecessor to be "a uniter, not a divider"? And in an election year in which change is a central theme, is he what the country wants and needs?
It's up to you.
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