McCain hears cheers, hisses in Harvard talk

By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff, 12/18/1999

hen presidential hopeful John McCain appeared yesterday at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, he might have expected to encounter a crowd made up mostly of skeptical, young liberals.

Young and liberal they may most have been. But skeptical? Hardly.

The students laughed at his jokes, seemed pleased by his open invitation to join him on his campaign bus, and tossed him softballs during the question and answer period. Some of the students prefaced their queries with remarks about how honored they were to have him at Harvard.

The only inkling of disapproval came after McCain's comments on the controversy surrounding Vice President Al Gore's 1996 visit to a California Buddhist temple, at which he raised $140,000 in political contributions.

McCain poked fun at Gore for saying he wasn't sure where he was at the time, saying the ''saffron robes'' should have tipped the vice president off. While that quip has amused other crowds, it drew some hisses yesterday.

Minutes before, McCain had told the audience he had vowed to steer clear of negative campaigning.

''You will never hear me say anything negative about another political candidate,'' McCain said. ''Americans are tired of that stuff.''

McCain took another poke at Gore, after a student questioned him about whether he would cut federal funding for research and development programs at universities. He said he would not.

''And as we all know,'' he added, ''it was a research and development project that helped the vice president invent the Internet. You know, I'm a little older - I invented television.''

But McCain would not be drawn into criticizing his Republican rival for the nomination, Texas Governor George W. Bush, whom he called ''a fine and decent man.'' He refused to comment when asked about rumors that his rival had once used drugs.

''I believe George Bush deserves privacy,'' McCain said. ''Part of this gets back to motivating people to serve and run in politics. I'm one of the most flawed people you will ever encounter in public life and I think that it's important that we allow some privacy.''

McCain took every opportunity yesterday to reiterate his goal of doing away with soft money in political campaigns, the subject of a joint appearance Thursday with Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley.

''Can I achieve this goal?'' McCain said. ''I'm not sure, we're still the underdog. Every time I see the amount of money Governor Bush has, I'm reminded of the words of Chairman Mao, who said, `It's always darkest before it's completely black.'''

Many of the students asked foreign policy questions, which campaign aides have said McCain relishes.

Asked what his policy would be on deploying US troops in the Golan Heights to ensure peace between Israel and Syria, McCain said he could not give specifics until a viable peace agreement was in place. But he said he thought American voters would support US aid to the region.

''The real key to peace in the Middle East is to bring elected governments and democratic societies,'' McCain said. Terrorism thrives in undemocratic countries, he said.

On Chechnya, McCain said that the Clinton administration had not acted decisively enough, and that the re-emergence of the Russian military, and what he saw as attempts to reinstate ''the old Soviet Union,'' posed long-term threats to the United States.

He said he would cut off trade loans to Russia, and keep the Chechens' plight on television screens so that Americans become more concerned about it. ''If I were president of United States, I would be talking about it every day,'' he said.

Asked about the situation in Haiti, McCain said he would not have committed 20,000 troops and several billion dollars to reinstate former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, referring to President Clinton's five-year commitment to the island, which formally ends Jan. 1. Though Aristide has been reinstalled, the island is still gripped by poverty and political chaos.

''I think Haiti is worse-off for the experience,'' McCain said. He said he favors humanitarian aid instead.

McCain also reaffirmed his support for the ''don't ask, don't tell'' policy on gays and lesbians in the military. The policy, McCain said, was good enough for him because someone he admired greatly had taken a role in designing it: ''General Colin Powell - who, by the way, would be secretary of state in a McCain administration.''