McCain at the Elk’s Club (includes reaction to Bhutto’s death)

UPDATE:  Here is McCain talking about Benazir Bhutto’s death (mp3 runs 5 min).

GOP presidential candidate John McCain is due here in the Elk’s Club on Hickman Road in Des Moines in a few minutes.  This used to be a Bishop’s Cafe and the last time I spoke to the Urbandale Kiwanis Club which held its meetings here.

The cafeteria didn’t make it and now the Elk’s have take over this space.  The slight smell of cigar smoke greeted you as you walked in and they’ve added more tables and chairs.  The place is now overflowing with people, most of whom accepted and decided to wear the blue, rectangular McCain sticker on their chest after arriving.  It’s not an all-Iowa crowd, though. The two young women sitting in front of me are from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania; attending college in Omaha and intending to travel Iowa in these days before the Caucuses, trying to see the presidential candidates in person.

Former State Auditor Richard Johnson, a McCain supporter, is working the room.  Johnson believes McCain has a shot at second here, particularly with the news today of the assassination in Pakistan, because McCain is a serious candidate for serious times.

There is still a non-serious air to Iowa these days between holidays, however.  A woman to my left sits quietly, letting her loud hat do the talking.  It’s a festive Santa hat, with a white "fur" brim and "fur" ball at the end — but the bulk of the hat is made of silver sequins. 

Just before 10 o’clock, Dave Roederer (McCain’s Iowa campaign chair) took the microphone and began speaking.  His first remarks were an announcement for the "national media" in attendance, an apology for December being the sixth-wettest on record in Iowa. (By wet, he means snow, ice, sleet…..)

"Where’s not making any insinuation that you had anything to do with it," Roederer said to the media.

Next, the group stood for the Pledge. The vet who led the crowd in reciting it advised the veterans in attendance that they were allowed to salute.  A gentlemen about 15 feet in front of me raised his hand to his temple and saluted.

"The senator has seen it, has done it and also has learned from it," Roederer said to close his McCain testimonial.

There’s a theater in the round set up here, with McCain standing on a slightly raised platform positioned about 20 feet north of where the meat-carving station used to be in Bishop’s.   He begins by telling how warm it is in Arizona, but then immediately begins addressing the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

McCain: "I think we all can appreciate why this is so important to America.  Pakistan is our important ally in our war against the Talibani in Afghanistan. I think you know that Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state, that there has been a area of Pakistan which I have been to…which is now a safe haven for some of the Taliban.  I think you also know that there has been a lot of domestic upheaval going on in the country and apparently it was proceeding to a situation where Musharraf, who had stepped down as the leader of teh military and was running for president was very likely going to succeed there and Benazir Bhutto was going to probably be the prime minister — an uneasy relationship between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf and probably would have been a difficult situation but the Democratic process would have moved forward.

"Her opponent…in my view is probably a person that has a history in Pakistan that is not, at least in my personal opinion, the most admirable. I don’t know all the circumstances surrounding her death and it’s not really important right now except that it’s a tragedy and of course whenever something like this happens you try to figure out the winners and losers.

"Right now there is significant unrest in Pakistan as we speak and there are people who are blaming Musharraf for it ..It seems to me that the winners are the radical Islamic extremists.  Benazir Bhutto had dedicated herself and had said on several occasions that she would fight a battle against jihadists and radical Islamic extremists and she promised the people of Pakistan that.  Well, obviously when something like this happens, who is it that gains?.And that is the elements of unrest, disorder and revolution.

"So I don’t know what’s going to happen in Pakistan right now.  I do know that since they are a nuclear-armed state,  since they are our key ally in Afghanistan where we’ve been having difficulties as you know that this is a very tense and difficult time.  I hope that we can see the unrest subside.  I hope that we can see the committment, again, of Musharraf for fair and free elections and obviously one of the keys to this is going to be law and order. Whether law and order will be able to be maintained or not, I hope that will be the case, but it’s going to be a significant time of unrest.

"What can the United States of America do?  The United States of America can express our advocacy for the rule of law, express our willingness to help in whatever way we can with the democratic and economic needs of the country and that we recognize that this is a very difficult time for Pakistan and the middle east.

"I’d like to tell you that I could wave a magic wand or have some elixir that would cure this problem.  It’s going to be a very tense and unsteady time in Pakistan and the United States does care for the reasons that I mentioned to you before….I knew Benazir Bhutto.  I know Musharraf very well and if I were president of the United States, I’d be on the phone right now.  I would be meeting with the National Security Council.  I would be seeing ways that we could help restore order or maintain order..whichever is the case, in Pakistan. I know the players.  I know the individuals and I know how, the best way to address this situation

"So, our sympathy goes out to the people of Pakistan in the loss of this fine and decent woman who came back from exile to serve her country knowing full well that she was placing her life at risk.  By the way, there have been nine attempts on Musharraf’s life and as we also know, these people who are suicide bombers are the most difficult type of attackers to repel whether they be in Iraq or in Israel or in Pakistan."

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.