In Phoenix, McCain Touts Health Care For Vets

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain spoke before the American Legion national convention Tuesday in Phoenix. It was a friendly audience for the one-time prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain attacked Barack Obama's foreign policy, and vowed to protect and improve health care for veterans.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And we'll be offering full coverage of the Republican National Convention next week, although soon-to-be Republican nominee John McCain appeared before a convention yesterday: the 90th National Convention of the American Legion. It's a military veterans organization, and McCain is a member, so you can probably guess what kind of reception he got. NPR's Ted Robbins was there.

(Soundbite of music)

TED ROBBINS: Talk about feeling at home, this year, the American Legion held its convention in Phoenix, Arizona, John McCain's home state. The former Navy pilot belongs to American Legion Post 2 in nearby Tempe, and nearly everyone in the audience was a vet or a vet's family.

(Soundbite of music and applause)

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Thank you, thank you all very much. Thank you.

ROBBINS: In front of his friendly audience, McCain attacked his rival's foreign policy views. He accused Barack Obama of doubting America's role in the end of the Cold War. In a speech Obama gave last month in Berlin, Obama said there is, quote, "no challenge too great for a world that stands as one."

Sen. McCAIN: Now I missed a few years of the Cold War as the guest of one of our adversaries. But as I recall, the world was deeply divided during the Cold War, between the side of freedom and the side of tyranny. The Cold War ended not because the world stood as one, but because the great democracies came together, bound together by sustained and decisive American leadership.

ROBBINS: McCain, has, of course, repeatedly questioned Obama's foreign policy judgment. Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq. McCain supported it. He criticized Obama for linking the war in Iraq to the conflict between Russia and Georgia.

Sen. McCAIN: And if he really thinks that by liberating Iraq from a dangerous tyrant, America somehow set a bad example that invited Russia to invade a small, peaceful and democratic nation, then he should state it outright, because that is a debate I welcome.

ROBBINS: But much of McCain's American Legion speech was directly aimed at the audience of veterans. He stressed his plan for a voluntary card that would provide war and low income veterans with government paid healthcare outside the VA system.

Sen. McCAIN: I'll make sure that Congress funds the VA healthcare budget in a sufficient, timely and predicable manner.

(Soundbite of applause)

ROBBINS: Afterwards, some in the audience said they were disappointed McCain did not call for mandatory funding for the VA system. But even veterans like Mike Ash of Minnesota will vote for McCain because he is one of them.

Mr. MIKE ASH: He is a member and he's a member of the organization and a member of our fraternity system.

ROBBINS: That fraternity, the American Legion, doesn't mind being reminded again and again that one of its own is running for President.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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McCain Speaks To Veterans, Vows VA Reforms

While the Democrats prepared for the second night of their convention, Sen. John McCain delivered his own type of convention speech before a friendly audience of military veterans.

The Arizona Republican spoke in Phoenix at the national convention of the American Legion, an organization that counts him as member.

McCain received a warm welcome as the Navy hymn "Anchors Aweigh" played, and as he commended veterans for their service.

In his speech, McCain criticized his rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, for opposing the Iraq war and for telling Russia that it could not charge into other countries.

"If I catch Sen. Obama's drift, then our failure 'to lead by example' was the liberation of Iraq from a dangerous tyrant. And if he really thinks that by liberating Iraq from a dangerous tyrant, America somehow set a bad example that invited Russia to invade a small, peaceful and democratic nation, then he should state it outright — because that is a debate I welcome," McCain said.

McCain also vowed to reform the Veteran's Affairs health care system and renewed his pledge to provide disabled and low-income vets with a government insurance card that they could use at health care facilities outside the VA system.

He said that did not mean he wants to cut VA services. McCain said any additional cost would be offset by more accountability in the system. "My reforms would not force anyone to go to a non-VA facility and do not signal privatization of the VA. Use of the card would be optional. Only high-quality health care providers would be used.

"Participating veterans would incur no additional charges, and my reforms would not replace any scheduled expansion of the VA network," he said.

McCain left to a standing ovation. But Tim Collmer of New York thought that McCain did not go far enough and wanted him to propose mandatory VA funding levels.

Still, Collmer recognized that McCain was delivering a message that the audience wanted to hear. "Like most politicians, he talked to the group," Collmer said. "But I think the VA reforms are the biggest thing, and I'm glad to see he's doing that."

On Wednesday, the American Legion convention will hear from Vice President Dick Cheney, Democratic Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and Obama via videotape.

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