Return to Transcripts main page


Senator McCain Lies in State at Arizona Capitol Rotunda; Kinzinger Shares Thoughts on John McCain. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired August 29, 2018 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And, Maria, you've covered Senator McCain for a long time. What are you thinking?

MARIA POLLETTA, STATE GOVERNMENT & POLITICS REPORTER, ARIZONA REPUBLIC: Well, that was a series of very emotional remarks. I had talked to Governor Ducey. That's the office I mainly cover these days. He has been reminiscing over this last week, and even before that, about how he admired McCain. How he looked up to him. Sharing some anecdotes. Some humorous. Some serious. Always emphasizing how Senator McCain was able to go, you know, beyond party lines very often. Say the unpopular thing, even if people in his own party were not going to like it. You clearly saw him there talking about the significance of McCain and how he really shaped Arizona and became synonymous with our state. We've really seen that with the outpouring of Arizonans who have shown up, everything from outside this memorial service today to even the transport of Senator McCain's body to the mortuary here.

BLITZER: Yes, and this will continue for the next several hours. The public will be allowed to go and pay their respects to a great American as well.

Jeff Zeleny, you were watching very closely. And as you pointed out correctly, the Senator himself over these past 13 months, as he was dealing with this severe form of brain cancer, he got very much involved in planning all of this.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He did, Wolf. And that's what we are going to see really playing out over the next four or five days or so. Really what Senator McCain -- he's giving a message and a lesson to all of us, indeed the world. Every day at every step of the way. And one of the messages we're seeing now, it's a bipartisan group there. Something we don't see all that much of in Washington. All that much in certainly in Arizona. Has become deeply divided. A Democratic governor, former Republican governor, a former Democratic member of Congress from Arizona who indeed was a close friend of McCain's. But other lessons we're going to see going on in the coming days are going to be very specific in terms of who he chose to give readings. Who he chose to give eulogies. Even his pallbearers. There's going to be a tapestry, if you will, of American political leaders from all stripes.

Of course, it was only nine years ago, in fact, this week, where Senator McCain himself was giving a eulogy for Ted Kennedy who died of the same type of brain cancer. So he is taking part of that playbook, I'm told. Giving, really, he wanted his farewell to linger a bit. He wanted his story to be about him.

And, Wolf, one thing that is not being discussed but certainly is underlying all of this is who is going to fill Senator McCain's seat? Impossible to replace him, no question, but the man who will be doing that, and he refuses to talk about it with very good reason until next week, is the governor, Doug Ducey, who is right there. I heard him say it was striking, "John McCain's fight for America isn't over." So those words there from the man who will choose, at least the interim, temporary replacement for Senator McCain. Certainly that's something we'll discuss in the coming days.

But for now, at least, as we watch these events unfold, this is something Senator McCain, indeed, wanted.

BLITZER: Whoever Governor Ducey selects will serve in the United States Senate through 2020.

ZELENY: Indeed.

BLITZER: A new election in November of 2020.

Elaine Povich, you've written a biography of John McCain. When we say he was planning a lot of this, certainly, he was involved in selecting those who would speak. And tomorrow, in Phoenix, Joe Biden, the former vice president, a Democrat, a close friend, he will speak.

ELAINE POVICH, SENIOR STAFF WRITER, STATELINE.ORG & AUTHOR: Indeed. Of course, Joe Biden's son, Beau, died of the same kind of cancer that took Senator McCain from us. The circles are so entwined. And I think Senator McCain had maybe this in mind that we are together, we are entwined. Joe Biden and John McCain could not have been more different politically coming from different places, coming from different parts of the country, coming from different experiences. Joe Biden never served in the military, although his son did. And yet, they became fast friends even before this terrible bond over cancer. It's telling the people that John McCain has chosen to speak at his service.

The one thing I wanted to mention to you also is that this is a very sad day, and my heart is broken as well, but John McCain was always about having fun. One of the reasons there are so many people both Democrats, Republicans, Arizonans and people all over the country, and I should say the world who care so much about him is he was fun to be around. Everybody wanted to go with him on congressional trips to be at the back of the bus as he campaigned. I think people are really going to miss him. The whole part of him that was so much fun.


Now we're looking at the state capitol in Phoenix, Arizona. They've closed the camera at the casket. We should be getting that back later when the public is allowed. These were all friends, family, staffers, others who worked closely with Senator McCain who were allowed to pay their respects first.

Charlie Dent, you served in Congress. You got to know Senator McCain. What always impressed me, he was the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. When he went on a congressional delegation, he always insisted that Democrats and Republicans would join him.

[13:35:35] CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I never traveled with the Senator but the stories have been wonderful. He insisted on bipartisanship. And I watched this, too. Two of the people who spoke at that funeral, very close to, Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake. It's appropriate to have people like that around. If we're going to remember this man properly, after the services are done and he is laid to rest, the best way to honor John McCain is by Congress actually doing something. I mean, solving some problems. Whether it's ono or on fiscal reform. That's what he would want us to do. People had a general affection for him. We heard the stories about the temper and all that. But he was passionate. And I'll tell you, he was an institution. And the governor just talked about there's, in Arizona, there's the Grand Canyon and John McCain. Yes, he institutionalized himself. He could do things maybe a lot of other politicians could never do. He wasn't afraid. And I think he would like all members of Congress to mind a backbone and act like he did from time to time.

BLITZER: On campaign finance reform, he co-sponsored legislation with Russ Feingold, a liberal Democrat, on comprehensive immigration, reworked with Democrats. He was trying to work with Democrats across the board where he could.

DENT: And he even did so at great political peril. During the troubled asset relief debates in 2008, he suspended his presidential campaign. And he led. And he was part of the solution. Which probably hurt him politically in his campaign and it really suffered, but he felt he had to do it to save the economy, save the country. That's what I liked about him. This man was fearless. At times others need to be a little more fearless.

BLITZER: John Kirby, talk about John McCain the military man.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Again, comes from the storied family and our naval history. No question about that. A lot of pressure on him. The son and the grandson of four- star admirals. The first father/son team to get four stars in the Navy. So a lot of pressure on him. He goes off -- he flies and doesn't just fly any aircraft he wants to fly attack aircraft. He's flying attack missions off the coast of Vietnam. Off the "USS Intrepid" and he was shot down. But the thing that -- two things those of us in the Navy admire most about him aside from his grit and courage in the cockpit was the way he handled himself as a POW, and it's legendary. Everybody knows the story about how he refused to get released, even when the Vietnamese found out his father was a four- star admiral.

But the other thing that so many of us respect about him is his humility. We talk about his sense of humor. He can be cantankerous and certainly tough on people. But he was very humble. He never bragged about himself and what he did. It was always the team and what we were doing as a team or a caucus or as a military. Even in the last remarks that Rick Davis read for him and he talked

about his imperfect service, how many times do you hear that? My service was imperfect. You don't. You just don't hear that today.

BLITZER: S.E., you think we're going to step back at this moment now over these next few days as we honor appropriately Senator McCain and see any change emerging here in Washington as a result of what he tried to bring forward?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR & CNN HOST, "S.E. CUPP UNFILTERED": I would certainly hope so. Wouldn't that be an incredible honor to him? I was really touched, grateful that in those final remarks he chose, as he so often did, not to prey on our fears and our bassist instincts. He was hopeful in that message n told us that we'll get through all of this. And we'll be stronger for it. I needed to hear that. And I think a lot of people did because these are trying times. The country feels at times, it feels uncertain and we're treating each other badly a lot of the time. So to hear him and his parting words, give us that gift of optimism and hope instead of the fear that dominates so many of our political conversations right now was an incredible -- was an incredible gift. I'm glad he said it.

[13:40:16] BLITZER: And today is just the beginning of the memorials, the services, the special moments that we are all going to share with our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

Very quickly, John Kirby, your son is now in the U.S. Navy.

KIRBY: He is.

BLITZER: Like John McCain, he was the son of a naval officer. The grandson of a naval officer. And now your son is in, serving in the U.S. Navy. The son of a naval officer. And I want you briefly to share with our viewers what Senator McCain wrote to your son because those words are very appropriate and so powerful.

KIRBY: I'll do that, Wolf and try to get through this. It will be the third time I've read this on air. And hopefully, I can do it a little more smoother than before. I asked the Senator back in January to send a letter to my son who was getting ready to be commissioned as an ensign. Just giving him some advice. Something that he could hold onto as he goes out to lead sailors.

I'll read a part of it to you. He wrote, "As you may know, my father and grandfather served in the Navy. Both were men of great courage n dignity. Both were tough acts to follow. But they also inspired me to serve a cause greater than my own self-interest. From the Naval Academy to government service, it encouraged me to work for others. God blessed me with the company of heroes and it has made all the difference in my life." And then he wraps it up here. "Be proud of your accomplishments and never stop believing in yourself. And most importantly, you will find the most happiness in serving a cause greater than your own self-interests."

And that's -- nothing that -- nothing that I could have said to my son as a dad could be better than what Senator McCain said to my son. BLITZER: It's a beautiful letter. Something you will cherish. Your

son will cherish. As all of our viewers now will cherish as well.

We're going to continue our special coverage of a very special man right after this.


[13:47:43] BLITZER: Cindy McCain now joined, you see there, by her two sons, Jimmy and Jack. Among the entire family, all the family, the friends, the staffers, the colleagues, those who admire him paying their respects to John McCain only moments ago.

Senator McCain's legacy includes the younger lawmakers here in Washington that he often mentioned, whom he also considered -- they always considered him to be both a hero and a role model.

Among them, Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, of Illinois. He's joining us right now to share his thoughts about this remarkable U.S. Senator.

Congressman, I know this is a sad moment for you. Much, much younger than Senator McCain, but you traveled with him, served with him on Capitol Hill. You served in the U.S. military, as he did. What did you admire most about Senator McCain?

REP. ADAM KINZINGER, (R), ILLINOIS: Well, we don't have enough time to go into all of that. I'll tell you as I'm sitting here pondering, we never wanted to lose him. It's amazing that we're celebrating his life at a time when this country probably needs that celebration the most. You know, I was a delegate for him in 2000. When I got elected to Congress, my most desperate mission was to meet John McCain. We became fast friends. I traveled all over the world with him. I have so many funny stories and so many deep stories. The guy cares for people. Democrats, Republicans loved him alike. He never met an enemy that was America. Only enemies overseas. I remember, in Hungary, Josh Rogin mentioned this in his column. He introduced me as Henry Kissinger's grandson and they really all believed him. I was treated for different after that. I think about the people that admired him and the hero he was and nicknames he created for people. The thing that stands out the most is sitting at dinner and then I have a couple drinks and he opens up a little bit, but he shared the story of the forest fire where many, many men died. And you can see John McCain running for safety. I have never seen the man emotional until that moment. And you just saw in him a guy super dedicated to the country, that transcended partisanships, really believed in what he believed, and would fight tooth and nail for it. But he's going to be truly missed. As a guy that considers him a political hero and an icon, I'm just seeking to do 10 percent of what he did in his life.

[13:50:22] BLITZER: He was a mentor to you as he was to so many young lawmakers. He appealed for a return to civility, to mutual respect, even among political rivals. How likely is that given the political climate given the climate in Washington politics right now?

KINZINGER: I always say it is likely and then I'm let down a little bit. I think this is a good moment for America to pause and to have the conversations. I'm not overly optimistic in the next few months it's going to happen, but it will be part of a process. And even with me, I have to re-evaluate myself every day because I always say, look, if there's somebody on the other side of the aisle, or somebody in your own party that you don't like, do you really need to hate them? Or can you just disagree with them I politics and have a good political discussion? There's too much hate, there's too many Thanksgiving dinners torn apart because Uncle Ron voted for Trump and Aunt Linda voted for Hillary and now the families can't talk to each other. And I hope that America, in this moment says, John McCain would want us to be passionate about our beliefs and want us to have good debates, but this delving into hating someone for their beliefs is something we all have in our darkest moments. And we have to pull ourselves out of that as best we can. And we are going to fail some days and succeed others. I hope, as a country, we'll have more successful days than failed days.

BLITZER: Let's hope, indeed. Well said, Congressman Kinzinger. Thank you for joining us.

KINZINGER: You bet. Any time.

BLITZER: Very special day, Dana Bash, but it is only just beginning. Tomorrow there will be another ceremony in Arizona. You're heading out, talk a little bit about that.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you mentioned, Joe Biden is going to be the keynote speaker at the church in Arizona tomorrow. And that says so much. They were incredibly close. Got even closer as you were saying because John McCain was diagnosed and then died from the exact same disease that Joe Biden lost his son to, this brain cancer.

But I just want to quickly mention one thing that the congressman said, instead of learning of John McCain over the years, that was the moment he grew up. Because he was a hot dog before that. He, and you know this from studying naval history as well, he just wanted to have fun, romanticize the idea of being in the military and having the life of a fighter pilot. He admitted that. Then this horrible tragedy where so many people died, 100 people died, of his comrades, and he got serious and woke up. And unfortunately, one of the next missions that he flew was the one that he was shot down and captured.

BLITZER: And he did a wonderful one-hour documentary for our viewers here at CNN.

Thank you for doing that, Dana. And I know we'll be speaking tomorrow, you'll in Arizona. I'll be here.

Elaine, talk a little bit, give us a final thought.

POVICH: Sure. John McCain always said that he served in the company of heroes, that he wasn't a hero himself. And I saw him use his humor and his serious side that you talked about to describe that one shootdown that was the seminal moment of his life. He would always joke about it and say, I'm not a great pilot, I intercepted a soviet to air missile with my own airplane. And then I said, what was it like? You bailed out of airplanes before, how did that feel? And suddenly he got serious, and suddenly he said, that was different. It's completely different when someone is shooting at your airplane. And you need to ditch it. And he talked about blasting through that canopy, landing in the lake unconscious and being captured at that moment.

BLITZER: Good point.


KIRBY: I want to go back to something that he actually wrote about his grandfather. There was a book written in 2006 called "A Leader Born" about McCain. John McCain, the Senator, the prologue. And this is the last couple of lines in his prologue, which I think is really telling. He thanks the author for, "offering an honest portrait of a man whose contributions to our country have not always been accorded the attention they deserve. With revealing insights into the character of the man who's honorable, eventful, and richly enjoyed life, will, I'm confident, prove as inspiring to the reader as those of us who are fortunate to know him as he lived."

He might as well have written that for himself.

BLITZER: Such beautiful words.


[13:54:58] DENT: I was just going to say, look, John McCain was a friend, ally and mentor to me. And having seen Admiral Kirby's letter, he could be a very generous person. And I never talked about this publicly, but the highest political compliment I ever received in my life was from John McCain at the Philadelphia Republican retreat a couple years ago. Cocktail reception, he pulled me aside, I want to talk to you. I said, what's up? He said, I want to thank you for speaking up and leading and saying things that need to be said. I was like, wow, I was totally humbled. I only ever told my wife and a couple staff, I was so blown away he would say that to me. He always epitomized the definition of courage, guts and heroism. And I'm just going to miss the man. Because he really lamented the fact that Congress really wasn't performing well. And that's something that we as members or former members of Congress need to think about. And how we can all be better and act more like he did for the benefit of the nation.

BLITZER: Dana, one thing you and I and all the journalistic colleagues will always remember about Senate McCain, he appreciated the value of the news media, the role that a free press plays in democracy, and he was always there available to comment.

BASH: He was. And look, his conservative critics said that the only political base that he has for were the press.


I think at times that might have been true, that people who he enjoyed talking to, maybe the most, because everybody else was on the outs with him, were reporters in the back of his bus. But I know, as a member of the press, there were times he was not happy with us, but always understood, not just the benefit but the necessity of a free press in this democracy.

BLITZER: He often was very critical of me. Why are you asking me these questions? These are stupid questions. But then he would always come back and say to me in a phone call or whatever, it was a tough affair and interview. Keep it up. He appreciated the value of a free press.

John Sidney McCain III served our country for more than 60 years. Senator McCain's service began in the U.S. Navy as a pilot. He was shot down over Vietnam where he was taken as a prisoner of war, but later returned home as a war hero. He went on to becoming the United States representative before moving on to the U.S. Senate where he was still serving when he passed. He was chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Senator McCain is survived by his wife, Cindy, his seven children. Today would have been his 82nd birthday.

Today, the Arizona republic put together dozens of photos of Senator McCain through the years to honor his life, legacy and service. These are just a few of those many photos.