Fight cynicism, McCain tells graduates

Arizona senator vying for GOP's presidential nod speaks at Hopkins

May 28, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

When Sen. John McCain graduated from the Naval Academy four decades ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed his commencement. Graduates of the Johns Hopkins University heard a would-be president yesterday as McCain, a candidate for the Republican nomination, used the occasion to outline a domestic political agenda.

The Republican from Arizona admitted after his talk that he remembers nothing of what Eisenhower said, but was impressed by his presence in the way he finds few are impressed by politicians these days.

"It is we who have squandered the public trust," he said of elected officials. "We who have, time and time again, in full public view, placed our personal or partisan interests before the national interest, earning the public's contempt with our poll-driven policies, our phony posturing, the lies we call spin, and the damage control we substitute for progress."

Speaking in a huge tent on the Homewood campus, McCain called on the graduates to battle "the pervasive public cynicism that is debilitating our democracy," as he furthered his image as a candidate willing to criticize both political parties.

McCain endorsed using 60 percent of the federal budget surplus on Social Security and allowing individuals to use a portion of their payroll deductions for private retirement accounts, saying the rest of the surplus should go for various tax reductions.

"To save [Social Security], we have to stop playing politics with it," he said. "Democrats will have to stop using the issue to scare the elderly into voting against Republicans and Republicans will have to resist using Social Security revenues to balance the budget."

McCain took a similar pox-on-both-houses approach to education. "Both parties should stop concentrating on the next election and start focusing on children," he said.

He called for sending 90 percent of federal education funding to local communities while using Washington as a clearinghouse for information on educational programs and as "a bully pulpit to encourage states and cities to improve local standards."

McCain, a three-term senator who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five years -- he announced for the Republican nomination on April 13 -- also spoke about the two issues that have brought him the most publicity, Kosovo and campaign financing.

McCain, who was among the first to say ground troops should be an option in Kosovo, criticized President Clinton's war effort.

"He has fought this war according to the imperatives of his polling numbers and his numbers have told him that he can fight a risk-free war, where only the people we are trying to protect lose their lives and no American has to meet the enemy on the battlefield," he said.

But he added, "I find plenty of fault with my fellow Republicans, many of whom have treated the war with Serbia as cynically as the president has, seeing it as nothing more than another partisan opportunity."

A proponent of campaign financing reforms whose initiatives were torpedoed by his own party, McCain said: "We have a campaign finance system that is nothing less than an elaborate influence-peddling scheme. Both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to special interests."

Time and again he called on the graduates to get involved in public life in order to battle the cynicism so many feel about politics.

"Our culture suffers as more Americans succumb to the insidious appeal of cynicism and the false belief that there are no great causes anymore," he said.

After the speech, McCain said he was not discouraged by the polls and endorsements that show Texas Gov. George W. Bush far ahead in the Republican race.

"I am reminded of President Muskie and President Romney and all the others who were far ahead at this stage," he said.

He said he hoped the 1,000 Hopkins graduates remember more of his talk than he does of Eisenhower's. McCain said he finished fifth from the bottom of the 1958 class, but at commencement wished he had been at the bottom, the so-called anchor.

"Eisenhower only shook the hands of the first 100 graduates," he said. "But then he asked to shake the hand of the anchor. There were a few of us out there wishing we had studied a little less."

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