TPM now has the English-language original of the infamous McCain “Zapatero” interview. It repays a careful listen.
The interviewer first asks about the three standard Latin American Bad Guys: Chavez, Morales, and Castro. McCain takes the predictable hard line (lumping Morales with Chavez), saying he’d refuse to talk to Chavez without preconditions and coming just shy of calling for regime change in Venezuela. (Unprompted, he says nice things about Uribe in Colombia, and later about Calderon in Mexico.) Twice he talks about ending energy imports in the context of Venezuela; I wonder how President Calderon feels about the prospect of not being able to sell any Mexican oil to the United States.
The interviewer then asks the question that produced the flap. Her English is rapid and fairly heavily accented, and — having first clearly said that she was changing the topic from Latin America to Spain — she refers to “President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero” and asks whether McCain would invite him to the White House.
I think it’s possible that McCain was confused, as I was, by the title. Spain has a British-style parliamentary system with a monarch as head of state. English-speakers are used to calling the head of government in such a set-up the “prime minister,” and that’s the way Zapatero is usually referred to in the English-language press. But (according to Wikipedia) his actual title is Presidente del Gobierno (president, or chairman, of the government, where “government” — again, British-style — means “cabinet”).
But in McCain’s answer, he clearly refers to rulers “in the hemisphere,” as if he were still talking about Latin America. So I think Josh Marshall must be right in saying that McCain, not having heard the question clearly and being embarrassed to ask to have it repeated (which could have been taken as disrespectful of the interviewer), decided to wing it and assume that the questioner was talking about another random Latin American ruler. He therefore fell back on his “I’ll talk to friends and stand up to enemies” boilerplate. (He mentions Calderon in this context.)
When the questioner tried to put him on the right continent by saying “What about Europe?” the whole thing descends into “Who’s on first?” comedy. “What about Europe” comes out as “What about “Euro’,” and McCain obviously hears it as “What about you?” because he replies “What about me?” This even though the interviewer repeated that she wanted to talk about Spain. So McCain is still lost, and just repeats the friends-and-enemies line one more time.
The WaPo’s Kesslery and O’Keefe get Randy Scheunemann on the record saying that McCain deliberately refused to promise the routine courtesy of a White House visit to the elected leader of a NATO ally (a man despised by the Bushoids and the neocons) in order to “keep options open,” although (as they note) this contradicts McCain’s statement in April that he looked forward to normalizing relations with Spain.
In summary: McCain, not understanding a question, ran a bluff. Having been caught bluffing, his campaign doubles down, and choose to turn the mistake into a deliberate affront to an important ally which currently has troops in Afghanistan. This is completely consistent with the McCain conviction that admitting a mistake shows weakness, and with the “Me first, country second” approach McCain has taken throughout this campaign.
Josh Marshall has more analysis. I’m with him: this is no mere “gaffe.” This is a clear demonstration of McCain’s unfitness for office.