The presidential candidates gathered in Lake Forest, California Saturday at the call of Pastor Rick Warren to discuss the crossroads of culture, religion and politics. SheKnows was front and center at Warren’s 20,000-member Saddleback Church.
“We believe in the separation of church and state, but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics because faith is just a world view and everybody has some kind of world view and it’s important to know what they are,” Warren said to lead off the discussion.
Decided by a coin toss, Senator Barack Obama went first. The questions were exactly the same for both candidates. As Senator John McCain awaited his turn, Obama greeted the audience.
Whether McCain heard the questions prior to his turn is currently a matter of discussion.
You be the judge, the candidates speak in their own words in our inside view of the first time during the 2008 presidential campaign where both candidates shared the stage, albeit quickly.
“I have to tell you up front, both these guys are my friends. I don’t happen to agree with everything either of them teach or believe, but they both care deeply about America,” Warren said to the over 5,000 in attendance.
“They’re both patriots and they have very different views on how America can be strengthened. Now, in America, we’ve got to learn to disagree without demonizing each other and we need to restore civility. We need to restore civility in our civil discourse and that’s the goal of the Saddleback Civil Forum.”
Here are several of the questions that each candidate was asked, with the responses in the exact words of Obama and McCain.
Speaking words of wisdom
Rick Warren: Who are the three wisest people you know in your life and who are you going to rely on heavily in your administration?
Obama: You know there are so many people that are constantly helping to shape my views and my opinions. I’d be listening to…Michelle, my wife, who is not only wise, but she’s honest. And one of the things you need, I think any leader needs is somebody who can get up in your face and say, Boy, you really screwed that one up. You really blew that.
Another person in that category is my grandmother who’s an extraordinary woman. She never went to college. She worked on a bomber assembly line during World War II when my grandfather was away, came back, got a job as a secretary and worked her way up to become a bank vice president before she retired. And she’s just a very grounded, common sense, no fuss, no frills kind of person. And when I’ve got big decisions, I often check in with her.
Now, in terms of the administration’s, or how I would approach the presidency, I don’t think I’d restrict myself to three people. There are people like Sam Dunn, a Democrat, or Dick Luger, a Republican, who I’d listen to on foreign policy. On domestic policy, you know, I’ve got friends ranging from Ted Kennedy to Tom Colbert, who don’t necessarily agree on a lot of things, but who both, I think, have a sincere desire to see this country improve.
What I found is very helpful to me is to have a table where a lot of different points of view are represented and where I can sit and poke and prod and ask them questions. So that any blind spots I have or predispositions that I have, that my assumptions are challenged and I think that’s extraordinarily important.
McCain: First one I think would be General David Petraeus, one of the great military leaders in American history who took us from defeat to victory in Iraq. One of the great leaders and I’m so proud to know him. Fourth of July a year ago, Senator Lindsey Graham and I were in Baghdad. Six-hundred eighty-eight brave young Americans whose enlistment had expired swore an oath of reenlistment to stay and fight for freedom. Only someone like General David Petraeus could motivate someone like that.
(Also) I think John Lewis. John Lewis was at the Edmund Pettus Bridge (in Selma, Alabama in 1965). Had his skull fractured, continued to serve, continues to have the most optimistic outlook about America. He can teach us all a lot about the meaning of courage and commitment to causes greater than our self-interest.
(Third), Meg Whitman, the CEO of eBay. Meg Whitman. Twelve years ago there were five employees. Today, there are one and a half million people that make a living off of eBay in America (and) in the world. It is one of these great American success stories. And in these economic challenging times, we need to call on the wisdom and knowledge, background of people like Meg Whitman who have been able to make such a great American success story part of the world’s folklore.
You gotta have faith
RW: What would be, looking over your life, the greatest moral failure in your life and what would be the greatest moral failure of America?
Obama: Well, in my own life, I’d break it up in stages. I had a difficult youth. My father wasn’t in the house. I’ve written about this. You know, there were times where I experimented with drugs and I drank in my teenage years. And what I trace this to is a certain selfishness on my part. I was so obsessed with me and, you know, the reasons that I might be dissatisfied that I couldn’t focus on other people. And, you know, I think the process for me of growing up was to recognize that it’s not about me.
I think America’s greatest moral failure in my lifetime has been that we, I think, that this country as wealthy and powerful as we are, still doesn’t spend enough time thinking about the least.
McCain: My greatest moral failing, and I have been a very imperfect person, is the failure of my first marriage. It’s my greatest moral failure. I think America’s greatest moral failure has been throughout our existence. Perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest, although we’ve been the best at it of anybody in the world. I think after 9/11, my friends, instead of telling people to go shopping or take a trip, we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, expand our volunteers.
Don’t call it a flip-flop
RW: What’s the most significant position you held ten years ago that you no longer hold today; that you’ve flipped on, you’ve changed on because you actually see it differently?
Obama: I think that a good example would be the issue of welfare reform where I always believed that welfare had to be changed. I was much more concerned ten years ago when President Clinton initially signed the bill that this could have disastrous results. I worked in the Illinois legislature to make sure that we were providing childcare and healthcare and other support services for the women who were going to be kicked off the rolls after a certain time. It worked better than I think a lot of people anticipated. And, you know, one of things that I am absolutely convinced of is that we have to have work as a centerpiece of any social policy.
McCain: Offshore drilling. We’ve got to drill now, and we’ve got to drill here, and we’ve got to become independent on foreign oil. I know that there’s some here in California that disagree with that position. Could I also mention very seriously about this issue, my friends, you know that this is a national security issue. We’re sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much, that some of that money is ending up in the hands of terrorist organizations. We cannot allow this greatest transfer of wealth in history and our national security to continue to be threatened.
Life is a highway
RW: What’s the most gut-wrenching decision you’ve ever had to make and how did you process that to come to that decision?
Obama: Well, you know, I think the opposition to the war in Iraq was as tough a decision as I’ve had to make not only because there were political consequences, but also because Saddam Hussein was a real bad person and there was no doubt that he meant America ill.
But I was firmly convinced at the time that we did not have strong evidence of weapons of mass destruction. And there were a lot of questions that, as I spoke to experts, kept on coming up. Do we know how the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds are going to get along in a post Saddam situation? What’s our assessment as to how this will affect the battle against terrorists like Al-Qaeda? Have we finished the job in Afghanistan? So I agonized over that. And I think that questions of war and peace generally are so profound.
McCain: It was long ago and far away in a prison camp in North Vietnam. My father was a high ranking admiral. The Vietnamese came and said that I could leave prison early, and we had a Code of Conduct that said you only leave by order of capture. I also had a dear and beloved friend who was from California by the name of Alvarez, who had been shot down and captured a couple years before me, but I wasn’t in good physical shape. In fact, I was in rather bad physical shape. And so I said no. Now, in interest of full disclosure, I’m very happy I didn’t know the war was going to last for another three years or so. But I said no. And I’ll never forget sitting after my last answer and the high ranking officer said, “Go back to your cell. It’s going to be very tough on you now.”
Stem celebrate good times, come on!
RW: What about stem cells? Do we still need federal funding for research? Would you still support that for embryo stem cells?
Obama: Well, keep in mind the way the stem cell legislation that was vetoed by the president was structured. What it said was you could only use embryos that were about to be discarded that had been created as a consequence of attempts at in vitro fertilization. So there were very tightly circumscribed mechanisms that were permitted. I think that that is a legitimate moral approach to take. If we are going to discard those embryos and we know that there’s potential research that could lead to curing debilitating diseases, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, if that possibility presents itself, then I think that we should in a careful way go ahead and pursue that research.
McCain: For those of us in the pro-life community, this has been a great struggle and a terrible dilemma because we’re also taught other obligations that we have as well. I’ve come down on the side of stem cell research, but I am wildly optimistic that skin cell research which is coming more and more into focus and practicability will make this debate an academic one.
Shout at the devil
RW: Let me just ask you one about evil. Does evil exist, and if it does, do we ignore
it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, do we defeat it?
Obama: Evil does exist. I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children, and I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely, and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, you know, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God’s task, but we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront it when we see it. Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.
McCain: Defeat it. Couple points. One, if I’m president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that and I know how to do it. I will get that done. No one should be allowed to take thousands of innocent American lives. Of course evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century, radical Islamic extremists. Not long ago in Baghdad, Al-Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace and by remote control, detonated those suicide vests. If that isn’t evil, you have to tell me what is, and we’re going to defeat this evil.
I fought the law and the law won
RW: Which existing Supreme Court Justice would you not have nominated?
Obama: That’s a good one. I would not have nominated Clarence Thomas. I don’t think that he was a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation, setting aside the fact that I profoundly disagree with his interpretations of a lot of the Constitution. I would not nominate Justice Scalia, although I don’t think there’s any doubt about his intellectual brilliance, because he and I just disagree. You know, he taught at University of Chicago, as did I, in the law school.
McCain: With all due respect, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, Justice Souter and Justice Stevens. I think that the president of the United States has incredible responsibility in nominating people to the United States Supreme Court. They are lifetime positions as well as the federal bench. There will be two, maybe three vacancies. This nomination should be based on the criteria of proven record of strictly adhering to the Constitution of the United States of America and not legislating from the bench. Some of the worst damage has been done by legislating from the bench.
Teach your children well
RW: Okay. Let’s go to education. America right now ranks 19th in high school graduations. We’re first in incarcerations. Eighty percent of Americans, a recent poll said, they believe in merit pay for teachers. Do you think better teachers should be paid better? They should be paid more than poor teachers?
Obama: I think that we should, and I’ve said this publicly, that we should set up a system of performance pay for teachers negotiated with teachers, work with the teachers to figure out the assessment so that they feel like they are being judged fairly. That it’s not at the whim of the principal. That it is not simply based on a single high-stakes standardized test, but the basic notion that teaching is a profession, that teachers are underpaid. So we need to pay them all more and create a higher baseline, but then we should also reward excellence. I think that is a concept that all of us should embrace.
McCain: Can I just say choice and competition, choice and competition, home schooling, charter schools, vouchers, all the choice and competition. I want every American family to have the same choice that Cindy and I made and Senator Obama and Mrs. Obama made as well and that was, we wanted to send our children to the school of our choice. And charter schools work, my friends. Home schooling works.
When I grow up
RW: Tell why you want to be president.
Obama: You know, I remember what my mother used to tell me. The one time that she’d get really angry with me is if she ever thought that I was being mean to somebody or unfair to somebody. She said, ‘Imagine standing in their shoes. Imagine looking through their eyes, that basic idea of empathy. And that I think is what’s made America special is that notion that everybody’s got a shot. If we see somebody down and out, if we see a kid who can’t afford college, that we care for them too. And I want to be president because that’s the America I believe in and I feel like that American dream is slipping away. I think we are at a critical juncture economically. I think we are at a critical juncture internationally. We’ve got to make some big decisions not just for us, but for the next generation and we keep on putting it off. And unfortunately, our politics is so broken and Washington is so broken that we can’t seem to bring together people of goodwill to solve these common problems.
McCain: I want to inspire a generation of Americans to serve a cause greater than their self-interest. I believe that America’s best days are ahead of us, but I also believe that we face enormous challenges, both national security and domestic, as we have found out in the last few days in the case of Georgia. And I want to make sure that everybody understands that this is a time for us to come together. Throughout my life from the time I was 17 and raised my hand and was sworn in as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, I’ve always put my country first. I put my country first when I had the honor of serving in the military, and I had the honor of putting my country first as a Member of the House of Representatives and in the United States Senate. America wants hope. America wants optimism. America wants us to sit down together.