Inside McCain’s San Francisco fundraiser

I’m sitting in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel, having just covered a fundraiser for John McCain here. My story has been filed and should appear on the Web site soon, but space constraints prevent me from including much detail in the story. Not so on the blog!

Contributors began gathering beneath the crystal chandeliers of the Gold Room — an ornate, French Provincial-styled ballroom — at around 6:30 p.m., then sipped California wines — Mountain View Vintners Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine — or other beverages and snacked on hor’s d’oeuvres including ahi tuna tartare, chicken sate skewers, bruschetta, crab cakes and local artisanal cheeses while mingling and awaiting the candidate. The crowd of about 250 — campaign staffers declined to say how many people attended the dinner and reception, or to estimate how much money was raised Monday evening — appeared mostly white or Asian, and diverse in age.

McCain entered at 7:49 p.m. with California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who introduced the event’s chairman, Howard Leach, the former U.S. Ambassador to France. Leach introduced Cindy McCain, who said she recently returned from Rwanda on a trip with One, the anti-AIDS and poverty organization founded by U2 frontman Bono. She said it was a remarkable experience, witnessing reconcilation between Rwandan woman and those who’d brutalized them during the genocide of 1994. “I can honestly tell you I’m not that strong… I’ve never been so moved and I’ve never been so honored to be in the presence of woman as strong as that,” she said. She then explained that she was telling this story because she realized it reflected the strength and forgiveness her husband showed during and after his time as a Vietnam prisoner of war. “He is the true epitome of what is great about America and Americans: hope, honor, dignity and strength.”

McCain began speaking at 7:57 p.m., thanking the crowd for coming and promising not to let them down but rather to “run a campaign you’re going to be proud of.” He also said he was glad to be back in “one of the most beautiful cities on earth.”

He described himself as an underdog, said he loves that status and said he’s doing better at this point than he thought he would be doing. “I will compete and I will win in the state of California,” he said, then quipped after applause, “and following that I will take back to Arizona all the water that you’ve stolen from us.” He then praised Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as “a great guy.”

He said his campaign is “about reforming the way government does business,” noting Congress is at an all-time low 9-percent approval rating. “In our nation’s capital, we’re gridlocked and not working for the American people,” but he can and will reach across the aisle to get things done, he said.

He said he was proud to have never sought or received any pork-barrel, earmark spending. Congress once earmarked $3 million to study bear DNA in Montana, he noted: “I don’t know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue” but “the American people are sick of it.”

On energy, he said, we should pursue alternative energy sources but also beef up our nuclear energy industry — France gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear energy, he noted — and “I believe if the states approve we ought to drill offshore” as “a bridge to this independence from foreign oil.

McCain spoke about a “transcendent challenge of radical Islamic extremists,” and asserted that “we have succeeded in Iraq… and we will come home with honor and we will not have to go back.”

“There was a time when I said, ‘We’ve got to send more troops to Iraq because we’ve got to win there,’ and it wasn’t a popular thing to do… I said at that time I’d much rather lose a campaign than lose a war,” McCain said, then recounting how a New Hampshire woman last year had asked him to wear a bracelet with her slain soldier son’s name on it, and asked him to promise her son’s death wouldnt be in vain. “I take that very seriously. I want to be president becuase I believe I can inspire a generation of young Americans to serve a cause bigger than their own self-interests.”

McCain said he believes he can follow in the footsteps of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, and is humbled to be receiving their party’s endorsement.

He said he was tempted by an opportunity to be freed before his fellow POWs, but put his honor and country first and stayed. “I will always put my country first,” he said, concluding his remarks at 8:09 p.m.

He then took several questions from the audience. One person asked whether he believes its appropriate for a presidential candidate to apologize for America’s mistakes while visiting overseas. McCain said he didn’t see Obama’s big speech, but would prefer to wait to give a speech in Berlin until he’s president. “I think America has made mistakes, I’m sure that throughout our history the United States of America has made some mistakes” but “the United States is unique in the history of the world in that we have sent our young Americans to shed their blood in all four corners of the earth, usually in defense of someone else’s freedom,” and he hopes the nation will remain what Ronald Reagan called the world’s “shining city on the hill.”

On California’s allowance of same-sex marriage: “I have to tell you my personal opinion is that I do not agree with that, but I believe states should make the decisions within the states as to what those issues should be.”

Someone asked him how he would ensure nobody else suffers, as he did, the pain of torture, war and violence, either by staying in Iraq or by attacking Iran. “My position is that as President of the United States, I will declare we will never torture anyone in our custody.” He said a former high-ranking al Qaeda official now cooperating with U.S. troops told him the Abu Ghraib photos had been the terrorist group’s “greatest recruiting tool… So I don’t think torture works, number one, and number two it hurts us as far as winning the long-term ideological struggle.”

Someone asked what his position would be if Israel feels mortally threatened. “I believe that we can still impose sufficient pressure and sanctions on the Iranians… They have a weak economy, I believe that with diplomatic trade and other tough sanctions on Iran, we can still change their behavior.” He then added, “If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it destabilizes the whole region… The United States of America can never ever allow a second Holocaust, and as President of the United States, I will not allow that to happen.”

An African-American man said the Republican Party hasn’t given African-Americans a reason to rally to the GOP, and asked McCain how he would help minorities move their first-generation wealth to their children, and also about his stance on affirmative action. “I’ve never believed in and do not believe in quotas,” McCain replied. “I think we ought to do everything we can to provide Americans with an equal opportunity.” To that end, he said, “I believe the biggest civil rights issue of the 21st century is education… When we condemn Americans to a terrible education because of their income and their location, we have done a grave injustice… I want every American to have the same choice that Senator Obama and his wife had and that Cindy and I had, and that is to send their children to the schools of their choice” with a voucher system. “We will reform education in America,” he vowed, noting “education is on the upswing” in New Orleans, where rebuilding from Katrina led to a proliferation of charter schools.

McCain said goodbye and left at 8:22 p.m.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.