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The Axe Files with David Axelrod. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired April 1, 2017 - 21:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


DAVID AXELROD, CNN HOST, AXE FILES: Welcome to THE AXE FILES, my conversations with American originals. This week, John McCain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I announce my candidacy for president of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AXELROD: He is the political opponent Barack Obama once feared the most.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone's else.

I cannot betray my principles and my values and things that I believe in.

I'm more worried about this country than I've been my entire lifetime.

Everybody dislikes Richard Nixon, but I like Richard Nixon.

AXELROD: To me, McCain is one of the most interesting and admirable characters in public life.

DONALD J. TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He is not a war hero.

MCCAIN: This business of destroying reputation and integrity, David, honestly, it's not good for American.

AXELROD: One thing about McCain, you're never left wondering what's on his mind.

TRUMP: Putin said Donald Trump is a genius.

MCCAIN: To state that there is some moral equivalency between an imperfect nation -- that's the United States of America --

TRUMP: I mean, he might be bad, he might be good --

MCCAIN: -- and Vladimir Putin -- TRUMP: I said he was a strong leader, which he is.

MCCAIN: -- is appalling.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AXELROD: Senator, thank you for having us. I don't know if your people mentioned this to you, but I was not -- I was on the other side in 2008. I was for the other guy.

MCCAIN: I think I recall.

AXELROD: So it's generous of you to have us -- to have me here today. But --

MCCAIN: I recall -- could I say that I was honored to speak to your institute as well, which is a wonderful organization.

AXELROD: I appreciate it. The Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. We're going to talk about that because institutions are important right now.

But I want to tell you one thing about that campaign back in 2008. The guy I worked for, Senator Obama, when he was considering running, said -- and I've written about this, so this is not just for your benefit -- said, "I think I can win the nomination. I just don't know if I can beat John McCain."

And the reason he said that was because he watched you in the Senate, he had watched your campaign in 2000. He knew you were willing to take on silliness in both parties. And he admired you for it.

One thing that stood out to me in that campaign, one moment that spoke to that quality of yours, was a moment in Minnesota that you'll remember well, late in the campaign, when you -- it was a town hall meeting, and you confronted a number of people -- or they confronted you with their fears about Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't trust Obama. He's an Arab. He's not --

MCCAIN: No, ma'am. No, ma'am. He's a decent, family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign is all about.

AXELROD: Seems like that moment was more than just a flash in the pan, but a harbinger of things to come. And we've seen it boil over in 2016. What's going on in our politics? And what were you thinking at that moment when all of that happened?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, when that happened and the woman made the statement, I knew Barack Obama. I had worked with him in the Senate. In fact, Ted Kennedy had been sort of the guru for both of us. And I knew he was an honest and decent man. And so, it wasn't a planned response. It was just that town hall meeting environment that I responded. And as I also said, I have fundamental disagreements with Barack Obama. But this business of destroying people's reputation and integrity, David, honestly, it's not good for America.

Let me just give you an example right now. We are talking about -- for the United States Supreme Court, about 60 votes being required because that's the rules of the Senate. Now, we're talking about breaking those rules.

Now, Harry Reid, when he was the Democratic leader, broke those rules. But I was involved 15, 20 years ago in joining together with Democrats to stop that because that's what makes the Senate unique.

And so, the situation today, as I see it, frankly, there's no group of Democrats that I could sit down with.

AXELROD: Right. But what was -- you were booed in that room that night by your own supporters for what you said. And your running mate spoke very -- she spoke powerfully to that constituency.

And I don't want to malign them. I'm trying to understand and I'm wondering if you understand what is driving all of that, what is driving the anger, what is driving the sense of disenchantment out there.

[21:05:09] MCCAIN: Part of it is that we've not recovered from the meltdown of 2008. My own state --

AXELROD: Got hit hard.

MCCAIN: -- got hit very hard because of the importance of housing. You've got these blue collar, white, middle-aged workers, good, honest citizens, who never did anything wrong in their lives, that have now found themselves with no economic future. And those were the people that were missed by the pollsters, as we all know, in the last election.

So, I believe economics had a great deal to do with it. I also think that media, honestly -- I mean, let's be frank. There are certain levels of media that are extreme right, extreme left, that you just have different versions of the occurrence of the day. And I think that that has had a polarizing effect.

But I would say, more than anything else, it is the disappointment that so many Americans -- the autoworker that now watches an automobile put together by a robot rather than an individual.

AXELROD: I was sitting in a stand for CNN watching the inaugural ceremonies, so I didn't see you or your face when the president spoke, but he spoke about America first. And I was thinking, your slogan was country first. Those things mean something entirely different, don't they?

MCCAIN: Yes, they do. Country first means do what you can to help your country and your fellow countrymen. America first means, whatever you do, America has got to be first in all things. And the difference between isolationism, frankly, and internationalism is just those -- one word, country, America.

AXELROD: And which side is winning right now?

MCCAIN: I think that the isolationists are probably still winning or -- but I also think that some of the realities are becoming apparent.

For example, in my state -- the finance minister of Mexico told me that Mexico does more business with Arizona than it does with Spain. If you cut off that trade, cross-border between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, I'm telling you, you would have a serious and deep recession. There's a couple hundred thousand jobs that are directly -- not indirectly -- directly related to our trade with Mexico.

And by the way, if we continue with this poisoning of the environment between the United States and Mexico, they're going to elect a far- left president, and you think we've got problems with Mexico now?

AXELROD: They have an election next year.

MCCAIN: Exactly.

AXELROD: Have you communicated this to the president? Have you had discussions with the president about this?

MCCAIN: No.

AXELROD: Have you tried to have discussions with the president on it?

MCCAIN: No. But I have talked with the people around him. His national security team is the strongest I've seen.

AXELROD: You could have appointed that team.

MCCAIN: Absolutely. I would have been honored to have had those people.

AXELROD: General Mattis, McMaster...

MCCAIN: McMaster.

AXELROD: Kelly.

MCCAIN: Kelly, Dan Coats, who we all admire and respect, as director of national intelligence. And Reince Preibus who was my chairman in 2008 in Wisconsin.

So, I have conversations with them all the time. The vice president and I have conversations with all the time as well. I just did not -- I had two phone calls with the president and they were relatively brief.

AXELROD: I'm old enough to remember young John McCain coming to the Senate. I was a young reporter at the time. And you were sort of the face of the new conservativism. You were the Reagan Republican, sort of the prime example of that. And you were very close to President Reagan.

Talk to that, about him and what he represented, because everybody tries to expropriate him now. You hear politicians saying, "I'm a Reagan Republican," or, you know, "I'm the Reagan tradition." What is the Reagan tradition as you see it, as someone who knew him well?

MCCAIN: The president was very good to me. He and Nancy were both very -- had a great sentimental streak. And when the prisoners of war came back and he was governor of California, it was amazing, the way their hearts went out to us. And so, therefore, I spent more time over at the White House than the average freshman congressman and senator.

Ronald Reagan was the most inclusive of any conservative that I've ever known. Who was his pal that he used to have drinks with? Tip O'Neill, the liberal Democrat. So, they had built a relationship. He would spend a lot of time with Democrats, both senators and congressmen.

[21:10:10] He's the one that said, if a fella is with me 80 percent of the time, then I'm with him. When Social Security was about to go bankrupt, that relationship with Tip O'Neill paid off. They both walked out into the Rose Garden and said, we're going to save Social Security. And they had tough medicine. But only both of them together could have administered.

Was Ronald Reagan partisan? Was he a proud Republican? Was he a conservative of the -- in my view, of the most legitimate that I've ever known? But he understood the necessity of us working together.

Now, I think it's important to note that Obamacare just collapsed. Why did it collapse? Because it was...

AXELROD: You mean the Republican attempt to --

MCCAIN: Yes. To repeal and replace it. But back in 2008, the Democrats rammed it through. And so, now in 2017, we want to ram it through on a partisan basis. There has been no entitlement ever enacted that wasn't done in a bipartisan basis.

And that's what Ronald Reagan did. He stood for what he believed in, but he also believed in relationships and -- we've got not -- I probably shouldn't waste your time with this, but one time O'Neill was with -- speaking to the Democratic caucus.

Remember, the Democrats were in the majority over the first couple years. And this one young Democrat stood up and said, why are you always going over and having drinks with Reagan? Why are you going over there with that -- and Tip O'Neill said, "Because I like him." You know? They liked each other.

AXELROD: Yes. Can we get that back?

MCCAIN: Well, you know, Ted was one of the last of those, Ted Kennedy, because -- it was Bob Dole that said that Ted Kennedy could eviscerate you on the floor in his speech and then come in the cloakroom and convince you that he wasn't talking about you. But you know the thing about Ted Kennedy --

AXELROD: You guys once menaced each other in the well of the Senate.

MCCAIN: Oh, we fought and we would fight and we would -- and then we would finish the fight and we'd put our arm around each other. I'll never forget, he'd say, yes, we did pretty good, didn't we? You know, I mean, he was -- because he divorced personal relationships and personality from the issues.

So, therefore, if you were friends with Ted Kennedy, that friendship worked. And it also -- like with Reagan and O'Neill, when you had an issue, you could sit down and work it out because you had a personal relationship.

ANNOUNCER: Coming up next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AXELROD: The president, some of his supporters, even he himself, likes to derogate the whole Reagan legacy to him. Do you see him as a Reagan-like figure?

AXELROD: No, I didn't. And I think it's pretty clear that there is a difference between "well, aren't we killers?" and the guy who stood there and said, "Mr. Gorbachev, take down this wall."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:17:30] AXELROD: Your entire family, every generation has served in the military. Your father and your grandfather were both four-star admirals. That's an incredible legacy.

It's also something of a burden, is it not? I mean, when you were a kid, moving around, and the burden of just carrying that legacy forward.

MCCAIN: Yes. So, typically of me, even to this day, I rebelled. So, when I went to the Naval Academy, I tried to break every rule that was in existence.

AXELROD: And they rewarded you by putting you right at the bottom of the class.

MCCAIN: The bottom of the class. I didn't break every rule at the Naval Academy, but there's very few that I missed. And I always came very close -- I'd get up to the maximum number of demerits and then I'd behave for a while until the next cycle. But I loved the Naval Academy. The friends I made there --

AXELROD: You knew you belonged there and you dreaded going. MCCAIN: Yes. And I resented the -- you know, that I had been -- ever since I'd been that high, you know, he's going to the Naval Academy. And that carried over into my early days as a devil may care Navy pilot.

But I made friends. It was a wonderful life. It's some of the happiest times of my life was being in a squadron with 12 airplanes and 16 pilots, you know, the togetherness and the camaraderie, that's the same kind of thing that developed with my fellow POWs.

AXELROD: Do you think that part of what's happened here in the Congress is that you don't have people who had served together in war? We had the greatest generation, the Bob Doles of the world and others, who had served together. Was there nothing that sort of brings people together in the way that did?

MCCAIN: You know, David, that is absolutely true because I saw that particularly with Dole and Inouye. There was a bond there. You know, both of them ended up terribly wounded in the same hospital?

AXELROD: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAIN: -- who had lost --

AXELROD: Lost his arm.

MCCAIN: -- who had lost his arm. And there was something unspoken there between them. So, I do think that that mattered some.

But, by the way, we do have now a generation of senators and House members who were veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that's good for the institution.

AXELROD: You wrote -- you said something beautiful in your speech in 2008 when you accepted the nomination of your experience as a prisoner of war, which has been --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[21:20:04] MCCAIN: I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here, I loved it for its decency, for its faith, and the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AXELROD: It's a beautiful sentiment. And I think some people would say, my god, you spent six years being tortured in solitary confinement, physically abused in every potential way, and this is the lesson that you drew from it. Why did you come out of that with this extraordinary sense of what America is?

MCCAIN: Well, as you just quoted, being deprived of it is, obviously, one of the factors. But also, the bonds that were forged amongst us, even though I was in solitary confinement for three years, was communicating with each other, keeping each other's spirits up, resisting, don't break and don't make a confession, like they were trying to get us to -- it made us appreciate, one, love of country, love of our fellow prisoners, and frankly, it was the time of my life that I -- that gave me a certain quality that I don't think I would have ever acquired, and that is to recognize that if you do the right thing, it's going to be all right.

And by the way, I haven't always done the right thing. But when I forgot that lesson, I've always paid a price for it. But I've tried to remember that. And I'm the most -- I feel that I'm the most fortunate person you will ever know. When you think of the planes I crashed, when you think of the fire onboard a Forrestal one day, when my airplane was hit by a missile, 134 brave young sailors died that sunny afternoon in the Tonkin Gulf, and then the shoot down and all that. I mean, I've been so fortunate my whole life.

AXELROD: How did that experience inform your kind of worldview, inform the way you look at the world today?

MCCAIN: I really believe that it means that America has to lead, David. I really believe that more than anything. The 20th century was the American century. The early part of it, the two most horrendous wars in history. When you look at the encompassing wars took place and then America came along and led in a new world order, which is now being under enormous strain.

AXELROD: You also clearly believe that America on human rights needs to take a leadership role, even if it means intervention overseas.

MCCAIN: You know, it's a careful balance, but we are the exceptional nation. We are the shining city on a hill. I do travel a great deal. And still, the admiration for America -- they want to be like us.

They want -- one of the fundamentals of the United States of America is our belief in human rights. That's why you -- that's how we were founded, to people have the right to determine their own future. And sometimes, maybe I am too committed to it. Maybe I get too emotional.

But when I'm in Mariupol with the president of Ukraine and a woman is there and he pins a medal on her, her son had just been killed the day before by a Russian sniper and tears flowed down her face. I'm guilty, guilty. I get emotional. I don't like Vladimir Putin.

AXELROD: Would you be so fervent about it had you not had the experiences you've had?

MCCAIN: No, no.

AXELROD: You know, you said something else about your captivity. You said, the thing I missed most was information -- free, uncensored, undistorted, abundant information. That seems to be under assault today. You kind of referenced it earlier. How big a concern is that?

MCCAIN: Huge concern. I think it's one of the major challenges is disinformation, there is some story somewhere, and then it gets into the legitimate media, stories that are just -- look at some of the stories I -- there was a "60 Minutes" piece just Sunday night.

One of them was about a guy who just put out all this stuff, Hillary Clinton is dying of, you know -- just trash. And all of a sudden, it gets picked up to the point where a guy believes that there's human trafficking going on in a pizza place in Washington, D.C., and he goes in and fires shots. Really!

[21:25:00] AXELROD: It's fair to say you despise Putin and you've made that very clear. What did you think when you saw the president with Bill O'Reilly when O'Reilly called Putin a thug and a murderer and the president said, 'well, you think we're so innocent?'

MCCAIN: Killer -- what O'Reilly said, it stands out in my memory, he said he is a killer. And the president said, well, aren't we killers, too? That was so appalling to me to having moral equivalency between this fellow who is -- I don't know how many deaths he's responsible for, for example, in Chechnya, where he put down any opposition with great (INAUDIBLE).

AXELROD: There were several assassinations just last week.

MCCAIN: Yes. One guy was thrown out of a fourth story window. So, to state that there's some moral equivalency between an imperfect nation -- that's the United States of America -- and Vladimir Putin is appalling.

AXELROD: The president, some of his supporters, even he himself, like to derogate whole Reagan legacy to him. Do you see him as a Reagan- like figure?

MCCAIN: No, I don't. And I think it's pretty clear that there's a difference between, well, aren't we killers and the guy that stood there and said, "Mr. Gorbachev, take down this wall."

He spoke out for the captive nations. He spoke out for the people that were behind the iron curtain. And after the iron curtain fell, there were thousands who said, "I heard Ronald Reagan, I listened to the Voice of America, I listened to Radio Free Europe. He gave us hope." That's pretty big difference.

AXELROD: It's been -- it's now clear, everyone seems to agree that the Russians did interfere in our election campaign. You said this morning, I think, it's an act of destruction that is certainly more lethal than dropping some bombs.

MCCAIN: Because if you destroy democracy, the fundamental of democracy -- there are certain fundamentals, rule of law, respect, et cetera, but one of them is freedom to elect legitimately the leadership. That's a fundamental principle. And if you destroy that, then you have really destroyed democracy.

So, it's one thing to destroy a building with a bomb or inflict damage, but if you destroy the fundamental of a free and open society, which is what democracy is all about, you inflict incredibly heavier --

AXELROD: And the Russians are doing that not just here, but elsewhere.

MCCAIN: In France, they're playing right now heavily. And they're also in play in Germany. They tried to overthrow the government of this beautiful little country called Montenegro in a coup. And the pressures they're putting on the Baltic countries are intense.

AXELROD: So, if someone -- if an American citizen were complicit with the Russians in trying to interfere in our elections, would that, in your view, be tantamount to treason?

MCCAIN: I think you would have to gauge exactly the circumstances. There's one thing to have a conversation. It's another thing to plot together. But I think it would be something that that individual would have to be held accountable.

AXELROD: And, obviously, you know what I'm referring to, because you have ongoing investigations here. Do you have confidence in the Congress to be able to investigate this in an open and clear way with integrity?

MCCAIN: Well, I think it's pretty obvious that the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has to describe what happened and why and who --

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: Chairman Nunes --

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: You know, I was thinking about that when that story broke. He went down to the White House on his own, gave the president -- and I'm thinking, what number on the Richter scale would John McCain have hit, if as ranking member of a committee, his chairman had done that?

MCCAIN: I would -- and especially without involving the other party. One of the reasons why on Armed Services Committee, we produce a bill that is signed by the president of the United States every year is because we work in a bipartisan fashion. It's always overwhelming majorities that we pass that legislation out of committee.

You've got to work together. And I'm happy to say that, from what I can tell, Senator Burr and Senator Warner are working together in the Senate Intelligence Committee.

AXELROD: You've got Steve Bannon, who is sitting at the elbow of the president, who has a wholly different view about the role of America in the world, much more akin to the speech that you heard, the inaugural speech. Who's making the decisions here? Who has the president's ear on these issues?

MCCAIN: I don't know, because I know that the president has great respect for these former military people that he has given the most important national security posts.

[21:35:08] But on the other hand, I also know that -- everybody tells me that Mr. Bannon has his ear constantly. So, there is a contradiction within this administration. I know that both General Mattis and General McMaster have a worldview of the role of the United States that is very different from what's been articulated by Mr. Bannon.

AXELROD: You just got back from overseas. You're traveling constantly. I'm sure you're in contact constantly with people from overseas. How do you describe American foreign policy right now?

MCCAIN: What I try to tell them -- and I've been to two conferences in the last few weeks, one in Munich and one in Brussels, is that I have the greatest respect for the team on national security that the president has assembled. And I --

AXELROD: What about for the president?

MCCAIN: Well, then I also do say, but I'm not sure who the president listens to. But the president has committed to rebuilding the military. And frankly, the last eight years have been an unmitigated disaster as far as national security is concerned. Look at the world.

AXELROD: Part of that is because of the sequester, right?

MCCAIN: Yes. And that was an act of Congress, rather than the president of the United States. But withdrawal from Iraq, withdrawal from Afghanistan, rules of engagement, there's many other things that were done by the 30-somethings in the National Security Council that I find just unacceptable.

AXELROD: You've worked on some major pieces of legislation in your time. One was immigration reform.

MCCAIN: Yes.

AXELROD: So, what's going to happen with immigration? What do you think of the steps the president's taken? I mean, you come from a state with a large Hispanic population.

MCCAIN: I think, sooner or later, we're going to have to address it. And I don't know what this president's going to do, and I don't know what his priorities are.

But if he said we have to, "build a wall," which I take in the most figurative sense, not literally, build a wall, but at the same time, do immigration reform, e-verify where you have to have documentation that proves you in the country legally, where we enforce the border, where we let STEM students, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, students stay in this country, where you provide people a long, hard path to citizenship. Those kinds of things could all be put together in a package, and I would hope the president would consider it.

ANNOUNCER: Coming up next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AXELROD: Do you feel like you're part of the Trump Republican Party?

MCCAIN: I do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[21:37:06] AXELROD: You care deeply about institutions and the institutions of our democracy. And we talked a little bit about what's happened with attitudes toward the media. You're an institutionalist.

MCCAIN: I am.

AXELROD: You believe in them.

MCCAIN: Without a legitimate, respected media in this country, then you have destroyed the real important part -- it's not an accident that it's one of -- part of our Bill of Rights because you have to have a media to watch what governments do.

And you can appoint all the judges and all that, but it's the media that informs the American people. And now with this false media and -- I'm really very concerned about Americans receiving legitimate, unbiased, objective views on the issues.

AXELROD: Do you -- listening to you, there's so much that you are sort of in one place and the president presumably and his supporters are in another place. Do you feel like you're part of the Trump Republican Party?

MCCAIN: I do. Because, again, the people around him and I have had long relationships with. I work closely with General Mattis, the secretary of defense, General McMaster, the national security advisor. I've worked very closely with them. And I will continue to do that.

And he was elected president of the United States. It's my job to do what I can to get along with the president. But at the same time, I cannot betray my principles and my values and the things that I believe in.

So, it is a careful line to walk, but I am more worried about this country than I've been in my entire lifetime. We are seeing strains on the world order. We are seeing China, we're seeing 6 million refugees, 400,000 killed -- the list goes on and on. The world -- a world in incredible turmoil. It's my job to do what I can to work with the president of the United States.

AXELROD: And do you feel you can move him?

MCCAIN: I feel that his advisers can. I know that he has great respect for those that he appointed as his national security team. So, I do believe he listens to them.

AXELROD: You know, you started this conversation by talking about your -- people you had worked with in the past. Talk to me about someone I know you were close to, Mo Udall, who was a liberal icon in the House. And you guys were thick as thieves. MCCAIN: He was the most entertaining guy I've ever known.

AXELROD: He's the guy who said, by the way -- I know you like this. He said, the difference between cactuses and caucuses is that on cactuses the pricks are on the outside.

[21:40:03] MCCAIN: And that was after he was defeated when he was running for a leadership position in the House of Representatives and they had this young Turks that were all killed by the old bulls.

He also said, by the way -- when he came out just before that, he said, I'd like to thank the 120 guys that committed to me and the 60 that voted for me. He was a very funny man and a lovely man, and he took me to raves. We've traveled together. We've spent time together.

He was just -- he was everything that I wanted to be and, frankly, I've not been. I've not lived up to his standard because he was good and kind and generous to everyone.

AXELROD: He was tragically ill at the end of his life with Parkinson's disease. I heard that you regularly visited with him towards the end of his life. You'd go over and read the Arizona papers to him.

MCCAIN: Yes. I'd bring the clips and read them to him. And, you know, he just was so lovely and so good to me. And he was kind of, in many ways, a role model to me because of his unfailing good humor and pleasantry.

But he was very effective too, by the way, as chairman of the Interior Committee in the House. He was a very effective member of Congress.

AXELROD: Do you miss that -- do you miss the Congress that you came into?

MCCAIN: Yes.

AXELROD: Do you miss the Senate you came into?

MCCAIN: Yes, I do. I do. I miss Bob Dole, who one time -- when we were doing the Kosovo resolution, was giving the final speech, and he said, and I've been supported on this by Senator McCain, who -- for five years, I wore a bracelet with his name on it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT DOLE, FORMER SENATOR FROM KANSAS: I was wearing a John McCain bracelet proudly -- PoW bracelet.

I led debate on this floor for seven weeks in an effort to derail those who would cut off funding while John McCain was in a little box over there in prison.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MCCAIN: He had never told me. I said, Bob -- afterwards, I watching him on the floor of the Senate. I said, Bob, why didn't you -- why didn't you tell me you wore a bracelet with my name on it? He said, oh, I didn't think it mattered that much. It was a classic Bob Dole.

I love Bob Dole. I loved Howard Baker. I've had the great honor of seeing some real giants on both sides that are really -- one of the great opportunities that I've had is meeting significantly great leaders on both sides of the aisle.

AXELROD: Do you see them -- this is a kind of loaded question, but do you see them today?

MCCAIN: I see a new generation of both -- members on both sides that I see great talent there. I really do. I see some -- especially I'm favorably inclined towards those who are veterans, who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan, both men and women. Joni Ernst from Iowa, she spent time in Iraq.

So, yes, I see talent coming up. I have great faith in our system of government over time. There have been strains before.

AXELROD: Your grandfather came home from the war and there was a welcoming home party for him and he collapsed --

MCCAIN: And died.

AXELROD: And he died.

MCCAIN: Yes.

AXELROD: And from what I've read, part of it was, he didn't quite know what to do.

MCCAIN: I know. He didn't know what to do. And that was part of it. And also, the strain -- one of the things that -- he was also one of these sentimental people. When his pilots didn't come back -- he was commander of all the carriers, and when his pilots didn't come back, it was pretty emotional for him too. It was a pretty big strain on those leaders, you know, because it was 24/7, filled with tension, combat experience.

AXELROD: I asked that in part because I know your mother is 105.

MCCAIN: 105.

AXELROD: So I figure you've got maybe four more terms here. But --

MCCAIN: I don't think so.

AXELROD: But can you imagine yourself not being here? I mean, will you know what to do if you're not in service?

MCCAIN: Well, I don't know what I will do. But, David, in all honesty, I don't want to go out on the downside. I want to go out on the upside. I don't -- I've seen some people here who stayed too long.

ANNOUNCER: Coming up next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AXELROD: You got to know Hillary pretty well.

MCCAIN: Yes, very well.

AXELROD: Do you think she was treated fairly in the election?

MCCAIN: I don't know. I think that the WikiLeaks thing was the most unusual thing I've observed, as you know.

Whenever you lose, I know this very, very well, you find out all the mistakes you made. When you win, you didn't make any mistakes.

AXELROD: Right.

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AXELROD: A visit to John McCain's private office was a journey in history.

[21:50:03] MCCAIN: Come on in.

By the way, David, John Kerry was in this office before me. Let me --

AXELROD: Is that right?

MCCAIN: Yes. Let me show you. I always keep this here. That's Boris.

AXELROD: Boris, yes.

MCCAIN: This is the P signing on the Missouri with my grandfather with his head down. That's my grandfather. This is my father who was commander-in-chief of Pacific. And every Christmas, when I was in prison, he would fly to Vietnam, go up to the DMZ and have Christmas dinner with the Marines.

The reason why I love that picture, I know you all appreciate this, every one of those kids was draftees. They were draftees. They weren't volunteers.

AXELROD: You didn't talk to your dad. He couldn't write you. He couldn't --

MCCAIN: No, no, no. Now, this is this lake in Hanoi that I parachuted into. This is the only statue I've got, OK? So, it's USAF, which is an insult, because I was in the navy. In Vietnamese, it says on 26 October 1967, people shot down and captured the famous air pirate -- it says air pirate -- Major John McCain.

AXELROD: You then led the movement to normalize relations with Vietnam. MCCAIN: Yes. Normalize relations.

AXELROD: Why did you do this?

AXELROD: It was healing, healing, healing. People forget, the treatment that Vietnam veterans got when they came home is still a national disgrace. And I thought that it would heal the wounds if we had normal relations.

I can't tell you the number of Vietnam veterans that I know that said I went back to South Vietnam where I was, I went back to Cam Ranh, it was really healing.

This was from Averell Harriman, OK? And it's secret, OK? And it's from Paris, OK? And it says here, at the tea break, Le Duc Tho -- you remember, he was -- mentioned the DRV had intended to release Admiral McCain's son as one of the three pilots freed recently, but he had refused. That was the first -- I told him I had refused. That was the first corroboration of --

AXELROD: Because you didn't want it to be used for propaganda.

MCCAIN: No, no. Everett Alvarez had been there three years before I got there.

AXELROD: And he was, first in, first out.

MCCAIN: Four years ago, the Vietnamese defense minister came into my office and gave me this copy that I didn't -- this picture that I didn't know existed. That's me being pulled from the lake -- being pulled from the lake where you saw the statue next to. Fascinating. I did not know that it existed.

AXELROD: What all was broken, which limbs were broken.

MCCAIN: This arm -- both arms and then they hit me with a rifle, but one said pull me out, and you can imagine they weren't happy they broke my should and also I broke my knee. I remember them pulling me out. I remember the folks not being very happy. We just finished bombing the place.

And, of course, everybody dislikes Richard Nixon, but I like Richard Nixon because he bombed Hanoi in order to get us out.

AXELROD: PoWs generally were.

Someone told me that most of the others who were released went for meals and drinks and you asked for a newspaper.

MCCAIN: And I'd read and read and my eyes would hurt and I'd fall asleep, then I wake up, read and read.

AXELROD: You got to know Hillary pretty well.

MCCAIN: Yes, very well. Very well. We traveled together. We went to a small bar together. We did a lot of stuff together. I really enjoyed her company. I really did.

AXELROD: Do you have a high regard for her?

MCCAIN: Sure. Absolutely! I have a high regard for her.

AXELROD: Do you think she was treated fairly in the election?

MCCAIN: I don't know. I think that the WikiLeaks thing was the most unusual thing I've observed, as you know. But I also -- you know, whenever you lose, I know this very, very well, you find out all the mistakes you made. When you win, you didn't make any mistakes.

AXELROD: Right. You're never as smart as you look when you win and you're never as damaged as you look when you lose.

MCCAIN: Yes. For example, she came to Arizona twice and didn't go to Michigan.

AXELROD: Right.

MCCAIN: Now, if she had won, who cares?

AXELROD: Right, exactly.

MCCAIN: But because she lost, then --

AXELROD: Right. And I think there's a lot of serendipity on the other side too that passes as genius now.

MCCAIN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

AXELROD: It's the nature of the business.

MCCAIN: That is what it is. As Berman says, that's the way they play the game.

AXELROD: Exactly.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:59:19] AXELROD: Senator, I so appreciate your time. And even though, we may have different notions on some issues, I appreciate your commitment and great dedication to this country.

MCCAIN: Look, could I just say in return, you've continued in many ways to serve and the institute that you have fostered, I guarantee, will pay a lot of dividends in the future because I had the opportunity of meeting a group of those young people and they're very talented.

AXELROD: Thank you.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

AXELROD: Thanks for watching. To hear more of the conversation, download THE AXE FILES podcast on iTunes.