U.S. Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, has a quiver full of one-and two-line jokes, and some of them are aimed at himself. When he lost the quest for the U.S. Presidency, he “slept like a baby,” he told a local audience Monday. He added, deadpan, “I slept two hours and I’d wake up and cry.”
But McCain quickly grew serious as he addressed foreign and some domestic policy issues before a largely-friendly crowd Monday, when he and U.S. Senate Republican candidate Scott Brown shared the podium at Pinkerton Academy’s Shepard Auditorium in a Town Hall meeting.
The excitement could be felt as local and regional camera crews set up their equipment in the back of the room. A huge American flag draped the back of the stage, and loud music issued from speakers as the audience took their seats. By the time the forum opened, the gym was full.
A group of Pinkerton Student Council members sat together. Devin McMahon, a senior from Hampstead, said the Council members had been invited by Headmaster Griffin Morse.
Bradley Smith, a senior from Derry, said, “I’ve never been to a political event. I’m excited.”
They weren’t sure if they would ask questions, although McMahon said if the opportunity arose and she had a good question, she would.
Both young people cited the economy as one pressing issue for the country. “They need to make sure that’s handled well,” McMahon said of whoever wins the nomination. Though neither is currently old enough to vote, they said they will be of age in time for the next Presidential election and planned to vote.
Paul Chevalier, state commander of the American Legion, opened the meeting. Karen Fitzpatrick of Dover led the Pledge of Allegiance, and 6-year-old Sienna Szarek sang the National Anthem. Chevalier laid out the ground rules, which included short foreign policy statements by both Brown and McCain, followed by a 45-minute question and answer session with audience members. He said Brown and McCain would call on the questioners, and members of Brown’s team would bring microphones to them.
U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, was a surprise guest to introduce Brown and McCain. She’s supporting Brown in his Senate bid against Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen.
“What we’re participating in today is the great New Hampshire tradition of Town Hall meetings,” Ayotte said. “It allows you to be ‘out there’ and hear questions from constituents.” Since she’s been in office she said she’s held 40 Town Hall meetings and added, ‘New Hampshire has a great tradition of democracy, and Town Hall is part of that.”
Ayotte said McCain used the Town Hall format and won the New Hampshire primary twice. “He represents what Town Hall is all about,” she said.
Ayotte said her Senate colleague has showed great courage, both as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and later in the Senate. “He will take anyone on,” she said.
Ayotte called for people in government who would show leadership, saying, “Our enemies are emboldened and our allies are asking, “Where are you?’”
When Brown came on stage he asked all active and retired military to stand, and the crowd gave them a standing ovation. He did the same for their parents. He spoke briefly about current world conflicts, saying that ISIS in Iraq “makes Al Qaeda look like the Boy Scouts.” He referred to the situations in Ukraine and Israel and said, “What is our President doing? He’s on vacation. He’s golfing.” He echoed Ayotte, saying, “Our allies don’t trust us and our foes don’t fear or respect us.”
McCain said New Hampshire was his “second favorite state.” “I’ve had so many friends here for so long,” he said, referring to his first visits to the state 15 years ago. Endorsing Brown, he said, “I believe in Scott and am confident he will serve New Hampshire with distinction and honor.”
Noting the large veteran presence in the audience, McCain spoke of the recent Veterans Administration scandal. “It started in Phoenix, where more than 50 people died while waiting for an appointment,” he said. The ripples spread across the nation and sparked recently passed legislation, he noted, and added, “But we have a long way to go.”
“We need to make sure the veterans get the benefits and health care they’ve earned,” McCain said.
On Iraq, McCain said he had good news: due to the recent U.S. airstrikes, the Iraqi government had regained control of a strategic dam from ISIS.
He was blunt about ISIS’s plans to attack the U.S., saying that its leader, when released from a prisoner of war camp, told American soldiers, “I’ll see you in New York.” But he doesn’t necessarily see American boots on the ground again, noting that more airstrikes could beat back ISIS.
On immigration, he pressed for a secure border and for sending thousands of children back to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. He wants to stop the mass migration to the U.S., noting that the people who assist the children also prey upon them: one-third of the girls are raped before they reach the border, McCain said.
“If they’re threatened in their own country, we need to expand the capabilities of our embassies,” McCain said.
Though the topic was foreign policy, many discussions circled back to veterans’ issues. John Potucek, a Derry resident and State Representative candidate, asked McCain and Brown about the Manchester Veterans Administration facility. “We’ve been promised that will become a full-service medical facility,” he said. “Is that true?”
McCain said, “If a veteran can’t get an appointment, he or she should be able to go outside the VA.” A new law will give the Secretary of Veterans Affairs the ability to fire people and remove their pay and benefits, he said, adding that two of the executives in the Phoenix scandal are “still on administrative leave.”
When a woman from Barnstead asked about military funding, McCain said he was disturbed to see captains and majors serving in Iraq receiving notices that their positions were being eliminated. In the same time frame, he said, “we built an aircraft carrier, and it had a $3 billion cost overrun.” The government needs to reform its acquisitions process, McCain said, because the men and women in the military are bearing the brunt.
“You have to do a budget,” Brown said, “and they did this one on the backs of veterans.”
Israel and Iraq
Paul Accardo of East Derry said, “This meeting is supposed to be about foreign policy. Well, it’s foreign to me what’s happened to our best allies in the Middle East – Israel. Have we changed in our support for our allies?”
In Brown’s opinion, the current situation with Israel is “the worst state of affairs since the creation of the state of Israel.” He visited the country during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and said, “The tension was overwhelming.”
Brown faulted President Barack Obama for drawing what he called was a “red line,” saying, “You do X, we’ll do Y. They did X and we did nothing.”
McCain said many journalists and commentators were painting Israel and Hamas as “morally equivalent,” but noted, “The rockets came from Hamas, but European countries see Israel as the aggressor.”
Pinkerton student Lauren Batchelder said she was not hopeful about terrorism.
McCain advocated a full-on response to terrorism. “We have to do it hard,” he said of the airstrikes. “It can’t be a gradual thing. The object of a conflict is to break the enemy’s will.” “Gradual” didn’t work in Vietnam and it won’t work in the Middle East, he added.
“We need to provide the tools and resources for people to do their jobs,” Brown observed.
Jane Lang of Salem asked about seniors. She’s worried about possible cuts to Social Security and the high cost of prescription drugs. “Can you get Congress and the pharmaceutical companies to negotiate?” she asked.
Brown said, “Whatever changes are made, you will still get your benefits. It’s our children and grandchildren that I’m worried about.”
He’s concerned, he said, because “three-quarters of a trillion dollars” was taken from Medicare to support other programs.
“We can do it better,” Brown said of Medicare and Social Security.
McCain lauded Medicare Part D. “But I still want to be able to go to Canada,” he said. “The drug companies are the most powerful lobbyists in the country.”
Ryan Cox, a Pinkerton student from Derry, expressed concern about a proposal that would deny members of Congress their pay until they balanced the budget. “Will this work, and what message will it send on the world stage?” he asked.
Brown said, “How can we lecture other countries on how to manage their funds? We have an $11 trillion deficit. Their answer will be, ‘Really?””
McCain advocated a Constitutional amendment requiring Congress to pass a balanced budget and the President to sign it.
Brown pressed for a bipartisan and bicameral approach to all the problems. “There are good people on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “We need to come together and put America first.”
One woman, who identified herself as “Lynn from Derry,” said she saw one solution, and that was impeaching President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
“I’m a realist,” Brown countered. “While I disagree with many of the positions of the executive branch, there are checks and balances.”
McCain said, “I think it’s more important to support our own candidates, and to be respectful in public life.”