Tuesday night, Sen. John McCain, following up on his appearance at Google three weeks ago, courted the tech industry's money and talent at a Wall Street Journal technology conference near San Diego.
Quizzed by the Journal's Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher and members of the audience for nearly an hour, McCain didn't always tell the crowd what it seemed to want to hear -- particularly about the Iraq war. But after a subdued opening, McCain found his voice, and a measure of positive response, by promising an administration that would tap the nation's best minds, JFK style.
In filling leadership positions in the federal bureaucracy, like the Federal Communications Commission, McCain said, "Don't pick the person who's contributed the most or shown the most loyalty. Bring in experienced people that know the field and ask them to serve."
"I know who the smart people in America are," he said. He could easily have added, They're right here! He proceeded to drop names like Federal Express founder Fred Smith (who could whip the "screwed up" defense acquisition system into shape), Cisco CEO John Chambers and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The latter two men, as it happened, were in the room.
"I'm curious," Swisher interjected. "Steve Ballmer as secretary of state?" (In the tech industry, Ballmer is known for his pugnacity.)
"Ambassador to China," McCain quipped back.
McCain seemed most relaxed in these "pick your dream Cabinet" exchanges and least at ease in attempting to square his ardent free-market principles with complex questions about Net neutrality and the failure of the U.S. broadband market to match the speeds and services available in other countries. At times the senator trotted out stump-rhetoric set pieces that felt oddly stiff in this relatively intimate venue. After sketching the dangerous scenario of a nuclear-armed Iran passing a bomb to terrorists, for instance, he realized he was sounding too gloomy for a successful presidential candidate, so he hastily added, "We're the strongest nation in the world and the best nation in every way, and we will prevail again."
On Iraq, he restated the position he shares with the president: "Setting a date for withdrawal is setting a date for surrender." He recalled his record criticizing the conduct of the war, including his relatively early break with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But today, he said, "we are where we are. If we leave, there will be chaos in the region ... and they will follow us home. Now, we have got a new general and a new strategy. It is working."
"You really believe that?" Mossberg asked, looking dubiously at McCain. McCain started reeling off the names of experts who, he said, share his view that withdrawal would be a disaster: Brent Scowcroft, Anthony Zinni, Henry Kissinger. Mossberg pointed out Kissinger's iffy record of managing the wind-down of the Vietnam War, and McCain started to work up a heated response about that era's history -- which he knows a bit about -- but then thought better of it.
The same issue came up again when Brian Dear, chairman of Eventful, held up a copy of the 2000 reissue of the late David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest," and reminded the senator that he'd written a preface that urged leaders to read the book twice before entering any war. "Did you urge the Bush administration to read this book? Doesn't seem like they did."
"It's a lot of pages," Swisher pointed out.