Sen. McCain moves to head of the class

Guest: Navy must adapt to fight terrorism, alumnus tells midshipmen.

April 22, 2005|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Five minutes into a lecture on the Electoral College yesterday morning, several of the 40 or so midshipmen - all students in a political science class at the Naval Academy - began to slump in their chairs. Others doodled on notebooks. A few looked as though they might doze off.

No sooner had their attention started to wane than there was a knock at the door and a guest speaker strode in, causing everyone to snap to attention.

Grabbing a piece of chalk, he wrote his name on the blackboard in capital letters: JOHN MCCAIN.

"That's for those of you who don't know me," joked McCain, Republican senator from Arizona and one of the most recognized academy alumni.

The senator's stint as a substitute teacher was arranged by the producers of Stand In, a show on the college television network MTVu that surprises students by replacing their professors with celebrities for a day.

A 1958 graduate of the prestigious school, McCain appeared delighted by the return to his alma mater. Dressed in a light gray suit and lavender tie, he paced back and forth at the front of the classroom while he led an hourlong discussion that was serious and sweeping.

First lesson? The state of the Navy.

Holding up a recent New York Times article about the skyrocketing cost of the Navy's new ships, McCain said: "If we keep on this path, there won't be ships for you to man."

McCain, a former naval aviator, said the Navy has not adapted to today's most pressing threat: terrorism.

"Terror is not high-tech," McCain said. "What is a DDX [a destroyer] going to do in the Philippines? We have not shifted focus to meet the threat of terror, which might be an argument for smaller, faster boats."

Next, the senator shared his thoughts on immigration - which he called a serious problem - as well as border control, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The winds of change are sweeping the world in a way in which we've never seen," said McCain, citing the recent uprisings in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Lebanon. "The U.S. is an example of a beacon for people all over the world."

McCain also talked about the controversy surrounding the treatment of suspected terrorists.

"Do I have the right to tap your phone because I think you're a bad guy?" asked McCain. "The nature of government is to err on the side of caution, but these are the questions I wrestle with intellectually every day."

McCain - who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam - said he is certain of one thing: "Torture does not work."

After his lecture, McCain turned the discussion over to the midshipmen.

"I'd like to answer your questions," McCain said. "Or, if you'd like to take a nap, we can do that, too."

The mids chuckled, and several raised their hands. Their queries ranged from the future of Iraq to pork-barrel spending. They also asked about the Capitol Hill hearings on Terri Schiavo and steroid use in professional baseball.

McCain fielded them with enthusiasm, praising the midshipmen for the quality of their questions.

It was not until he'd answered several of the students that someone stood and asked the question of the moment: Will he consider a 2008 presidential bid?

McCain, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2000, responded by quoting former Arizona congressman Morris K. Udall.

"He once said if you are a United States senator - unless you are under indictment or detoxification - you automatically consider yourself a candidate for president."

McCain then added: "No, I am not seriously considering it. I'm going to wait a couple of years and then give it some thought at that time."

Just before 11 a.m., McCain checked his watch and stopped to thank the class for having him back to the "old school where I did so well" (he graduated near the bottom of his class).

"It's been a pleasure spending time with you," he said. "When I spend time with young people like you it restores my faith in young people and the future of America."

With that, he dismissed class and breezed out the door followed by a handful of his staff.

Although the midshipmen said they wondered about the pool of cameras and reporters in the back of their classroom, most said the senator's visit came as a complete surprise.

"I was caught off guard," said Ian Adams, 21, who hopes to be a naval aviator and who called McCain inspiring and approachable.

"He relates to a lot of mids because he wasn't at the top of his class at the academy," said Adams, who said he's been put on academic restriction in the past. "We all feel really relaxed around him."

"I had no idea he was coming," said Christopher Tate, a 22-year-old senior who brought a candy bar to class to keep awake. Instead of fighting sleep, Tate had the chance to ask McCain about a run for the White House.

"He was my personal favorite in the 2000 election, and I hoped to hear he'd run again," Tate said. "I thought it was curious that at 73, he said he's going to wait a few years. I guess he left it kind of open."

Chris Yenias, 23, said he was struck by McCain's comments on the treatment of prisoners of war.

"Coming from him, it was really interesting because he has firsthand knowledge," said Yenias. "We all know what he's been through."

As the mids filed out of the classroom, the regular teacher said she was certain the visit was a hit.

"That was so fun," said professor Rebecca Bill-Chavez. "I think they were a little more alert for the senator than they are for me."

The show will air on MTV at noon May 2.

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