RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Republican Senator John McCain has made a few hard calls in his life, and that's the subject of his new book. It opens with the story of a man who was McCain's cellmate and savior in Vietnam and a tough decision he had to make. Air Force Major George "Bud" Day had been shot down. Wounded and in pain, he made his way through the jungles for 13 days until he could see an American base. It was nighttime and, weighing everything, Major Day faced a stark choice: run for it and risk hitting a mine or getting shot by his countrymen in the dark, or wait until dawn and risk being caught by the Viet Cong. John McCain says it's a classic example of a hard call.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): He decided to wait until the next morning, and before he could make that last dash to freedom, he was spotted by some North Vietnamese. And he tried to hide and they came upon him. He made the right decision. It just didn't turn out right.
MONTAGNE: Now, another hard call in your book involves President Harry Truman…
Sen. McCAIN: Yes.
MONTAGNE: …who championed civil rights at a time when that position could well have doomed his chances of ever getting re-elected.
Sen. McCAIN: Oh, yeah. One of the things that drove Harry Truman's decision to integrate our military was how shocked and angry he was by the lynchings of two African-American World War II veterans. And Truman was certainly no, you know, he'd use racial epithets in private conversations, et cetera, but he believed that his oath to protect the Constitution made his responsible to protect the rights of all American people.
MONTAGNE: You know, one understands very quickly that this would have been politically courageous in a time when Jim Crow laws were the law, but he also seems to have made a personally courageous decision with this. His own family…
Sen. McCAIN: His mother was, yes, was very much in favor of segregation. And look, let's have some straight talk. Harry Truman was not the greatest intellect that ever inhabited the White House, but he had the right instincts, and frankly he had the humility and inspiration to recognize that you have to suborn your personal ambitions for the greater good.
MONTAGNE: So you write about some hard calls you've made in your political career. But, if you wouldn't mind that, I want to turn to something you write about in this book during the 2000 primaries. You made a call, quoting you here, "that I knew to be wrong," refusing to condemn the flying the Confederate flag in South Carolina. And again quoting you, you thought it might help you in the primary. Would you call that a hard call?
Sen. McCAIN: I'd call it a hard call that I didn't make. The hard call would have been said, this flag is an affront to people all over America, as well as in South Carolina, and it's not right to be there. I should have made the hard call.
MONTAGNE:And part of the lesson might be you were, perhaps, appropriately rewarded.
Sen. McCAIN: That's right. I lost, anyway.
MONTAGNE: Now, in this presidential race, the most prominent call you've made that you would call a hard call is your steadfast support of the war in Iraq. How do you hold to that position when so many voters, even some of your Republican colleagues in the Senate, have come around to that position that it's time for American troops to start coming home?
Sen. McCAIN: Because every bit of knowledge and instinct, awareness and confidence that I have makes me believe absolutely that setting a date for withdrawal will result in chaos and genocide in the region, and we will then have to call on young Americans to make even greater sacrifices. And as you pointed out, a lot of Americans' patience were exhausted by the failed strategy that I bitterly opposed, predicted would fail, and called for the new strategy that we have finally implemented and is now winning. I want us out, too, but I have said on a number of occasions that I would rather lose a campaign than lose a war.
MONTAGNE: Towards the issue though of winning, even the American military said this mission cannot be sustained over time. Is it possible that there is some wishful thinking on your part that this could really work?
Sen. McCAIN: It is working. This military, this Guard and Reserve, are badly overstretched but they are winning, and I believe that they will if given the time to do so. Come next spring, I think decisions will probably need to be made, depending on our troop levels and depending on the success. But I think it's long, and hard, and difficult.
MONTAGNE: But nobody, I don't think, is suggesting there's progress politically. Those that are left in the parliament are on vacation this month. We can have progress on the ground militarily and still end up with a losing proposition down the road when troops have to be pulled out.
Sen. McCAIN: That's true, and the Maliki government has been very disappointing. But I want to again return to the consequences of failure. The consequences of a date for withdrawal are chaos and the whole region engulfed in conflict, and that chaos would extend all the way to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
MONTAGNE: Given that you have argued since the very beginning of the war that more troops were needed, and you have since said that mistakes have been made, could you yourself, though, as a very powerful senator and a Republican, could you have done more?
Sen. McCAIN: I think maybe you could always have done more. But I guarantee you, I worked as hard as I could to reverse that failed strategy and called for the strategy that is now winning.
MONTAGNE: But you also did publicly support President Bush at a critical time, though, during President Bush's re-election.
Sen. McCAIN: I supported President Bush. His opponent wanted to complete an immediate withdrawal, as I recall. I felt strongly that the Democrat candidate would doom us to failure not only there but in other parts of the world.
MONTAGNE: Now your position on Iraq may well, at this moment in time, have hurt you with…
Sen. McCAIN: Especially independents, yes.
MONTAGNE: …general public. And independents are a very important constituency for you. You have taken positions on campaign finance reform and immigration reform that are extremely unpopular with the Republican base. Are you okay -and we are many months out from the election - but are you okay with the fact that all of this taken together could well mean you won't be president?
Sen. McCAIN: I will always know that for a long time that - some very strong possibility that I will not be president. And I might add, Renee, I can't be any different. That's the kind of person I am. And I don't mean to act superior, but on these major issues that you and I are discussing I take positions because I know that they are best for the future of America. Americans, I hope over time, can have confidence that I will continue to perform that way as president of the United States.
MONTAGNE: Senator, thank you very much for talking with us.
Sen. McCAIN: Thank you very much.
MONTAGNE: John McCain, along with Marl Salter, has written the book "Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them." John McCain talks about the decision-maker he admires most at npr.org. Tomorrow, why presidential candidates write books in election years and which one has been the most effective this time around.