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John McCain and Bobby Kennedy

"Doesn't Mccain remind you of Bobby Kennedy?"

Andrew Glass, Cox Newspapers, was asking this question of an Associated Features columnist, Warren Rogers, who has written extensively on both Robert and Ethel Kennedy and their family.

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Mr. Rogers, who is the author of "When I Think of Bobby, a Personal Memoir of the Kennedy Years," said, simply, "Yes, he does."

We reporters were filing out of the Hay Adams Hotel after a breakfast with Sen. John McCain, who had spent an hour in telling almost 50 of us how intent he was on reforming our government.

And as Mr. McCain held forth, with fervor, on his plan for a better-run country - citing reforms he would make in campaign financing, education, taxes, and the military - one, indeed, could imagine that this was Bobby Kennedy, not this rather conservative Republican senator from Arizona, who was explaining why he was running for president.

I, too, covered Robert Kennedy closely on his run for the presidency.

And as I sat by McCain's side at the breakfast, I noted that you could shut your eyes and think that Kennedy was there. The voice, itself, sounded like Kennedy's.

But, more than that, there was that passion of Kennedy's - or, at least some of it. And add to that: McCain has some of that wry and bantering Kennedy humor.

For example, I asked McCain that classic question that some presidential candidates, like Ted Kennedy in 1980, have stumbled on: "Why do you want to be president?"

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A smiling McCain then kidded us by starting off his reply with a stammer: "I...I...I...I..." But then, after drawing a laugh, the senator made it clear that he had a single-minded purpose in running: He would clean up the American political process.

First, he said, he would take steps to do away with the influence of soft money, money raised technically for party-building activities but in actuality used for specific candidates.

The breakfast itself was being held the next morning after John F. Kennedy Jr., had been buried at sea. Near the close of our session, McCain volunteered a tribute: "I do not claim to have been a friend of his," he said, "but [I want to say] that the country is in mourning because of the loss of a fine, good, young man who became an exemplary citizen in many respects.... It is a tragedy that moves us all."

Robert Kennedy is remembered as the leader of the Vietnam antiwar movement. Asked about his position on that war McCain replied: "I not only don't disagree with those who protested against the Vietnam War - I also would do anything I could to protect their right to do so." McCain himself was a North Vietnamese prisoner for about six years.

McCain said he would use the bully pulpit of the White House to bring about the government reforms he has in mind. And, in foreign affairs, he said he's determined to take tougher measures to try to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

At one point I asked McCain: "Are you underscoring the moral flaws of the president in your campaign?"

"No, I am not," he said. "The scandal in Washington wasn't Monica Lewinsky; the scandal in Washington was the debasement of government by the Clinton-Gore campaign in getting money for reelection."

He said that he had met with hundreds of groups out around the US and that "no one brought [the Lewinsky incident] up.... Americans are embarrassed about it and don't want to talk about it. So there is no reason for me to bring it up."

McCain gave us a lot more insight into his presidential campaign plans. And so it was that after watching him in action for an hour, I came away convinced that if, somehow, he can pull off a surprise in one of the early primaries, he may go all the way. This man has it in him to fire up the voters.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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