Tribute by Meghan McCain
“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for, and I hate very much to leave it.” When Ernest Hemingway’s Robert Jordan, at the close For Whom the Bell Tolls lies wounded, waiting for his last fight, these are among his final thoughts. My father had every reason to think the world was an awful place. my father had every reason to think the world was not worth fighting for. My father had every reason to think the world was worth leaving. He did not think any of those things. Like the hero of his favorite book, John McCain took the opposite view: You had to have a lot of luck to have had such a good life.
I am here before you today saying the words I have never wanted to say giving the speech I have never wanted to give. Feeling the loss I have never wanted to feel. My father is gone, John Sidney McCain III was many things. He was a sailor, he was an aviator, he was a husband, he was a warrior, he was a prisoner, he was a hero, he was a congressman, he was a senator, he was nominee for President of the United States. These are all of the titles and roles of a life that’s been well lived. They’re not the greatest of his titles nor the most important of his roles.
He was a great man. We gather to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice, those that live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.
He was a great fire who burned bright. In the past few days, my family and I have heard from so many of those Americans who stood in the warmth and light of his fire and found it illuminated what’s best about them. We are grateful to them because they’re grateful to him. A few have resented that fire for the light it cast upon them for the truth it revealed about their character, but my father never cared what they thought and even that small number still have the opportunity as long as they draw breath to live up to the example of John McCain.
My father was a great man. He was a great warrior. He was a great American. I admired him for all of these things. but I love him because he was a great father. My father knew what it was like to grow up in the shadow of greatness, he did just as his father had done before him. He was the son of a great admiral who was also the son of a great admiral. When it came time for the third John Sidney McCain to be a man, he had no choice but to walk in the same path. He had to become a sailor. He had to go to war. He had to have his shot at becoming a great admiral as they also had done. The past of his father and grandfather led my father to the Hanoi Hilton. This is where all of the biography, campaign literature say he showed his character, his patriotism, his faith, his endurance in the worst of possible circumstances. This is where we learned who John McCain truly was. And all is very true except for the last part.
Today I want to share with you where I found out who John McCain truly was and wasn’t in the Hilton. It wasn’t in the cockpit of a fast and lethal fighter jet or on the campaign trail. John McCain was in all those places, but the best of him was somewhere else, the best of John McCain, the greatest of his titles and the most important of his roles was as a father.
Imagine the warrior the night of the skies gently carrying his little girl to bed. Imagine the dashing aviator who took his aircraft, hurdling off pitching decks in the South China Seas, kissing the hurt when I fell and skinned my knee. Imagine the distinguished states man who counseled presidents singing with his girl in oak creek during a rainstorm to singing in the rain. Imagine the senator fierce conscience of the nation’s best self taking his 14-year-old daughter out of school because he believed I would learn more about America at the town halls he held across the country. Imagine the loyal veteran with his eyes shining with happiness as he gave blessing for his grown daughter’s marriage.
You all have to imagine that. I don’t have to because I lived it all. I know who he was. I know what defined him. I got to see it every single day of my blessed life.
John McCain was not defined by prison, by the navy, by the senate, by the republican party or by any single one of the deeds in his absolutely extraordinary life. John McCain was defined by love.
Several of you in the pews that crossed swords with him or found yourselves on the receiving end of his famous temper or were at a cross purpose to him on anything, are doing your best to stay stone faced. Don’t. You know full well if John McCain were in your shoes today, he would be using some salty word while my mother jabbed him in the arm in embarrassment. He would look back at her and grumble, maybe stop talking, but he would keep grinning. She was the only one who could do that.
On their first date when he still did not know what sort of woman he was, he recited a poem called The Cremation of Sam McGee about an Alaskan prospector who welcomed his cremation as the only way to get warm in the icy north. “Strange things done in the midnight sun. The arctic trails have secret tales that would make your blood run cold.” He learned it in Hanoi. A prisoner rapped it out in code over and over during years of captivity. My father knew if she would sit through that, appreciate the dark humor that had seen him through so many years of imprisonment, she might sit through a lifetime with him as well, and she did.
John McCain was defined by love. This love of my father for my mother was the most fierce and lasting of them all, mom. Let me tell you what love meant to John McCain and to me.
As much as he comforts, he was endlessly present for us, and though we did not always understand it, he was always teaching. he didn’t expect us to be like him. His worldly achievement was to be better than him. Armed with his wisdom, informed by his experiences, long before we were old enough to assemble our own. As a girl I didn’t appreciate what I most fully appreciate now; how he suffered and how he bore it with a stoic silence that was once the mark of an American man. I came to appreciate it first when he demanded it of me. I was a small girl, thrown from a horse and crying from a busted collarbone. My dad picked me up. He took me to the doctor, he got me all fixed up. Then he immediately took me back home and made me get back on the same horse. I was furious at him as a child, but how I love him for it now.
My father knew pain and suffering with an intimacy and immediacy most of us are blessed never to have endured. He was shot down, he was crippled, he was beaten, starved, tortured and humiliated. That pain never left him. The cruelty of his communist captors ensured he would never raise his arms above his head for the rest of his life, yet he survived, yet he endured. Yet he triumphed. And there was this man who had been through all that with a little girl that didn’t want to get back on her horse.
He could have sat me down and told me that and made me feel small because my complaint and fear was nothing next to his pain and memory. Instead, he made me feel loved, said in his quiet voice that spoke with authority and meant you had best obey. “Get back on the horse.” I did. And because I was a little girl, I resented it. Now that I am a woman, I look back across that time and see the expression on his face when I climbed back up and rode again, and see the pride and love in his eyes as he said “Nothing is going to break you.”
For the rest of my life, whenever I fall down, I get back up. Whenever I am hurt, I drive on. Whenever I am brought low, I rise. That is not because I am virtuous, strong, resilient, it is simply because my father, John McCain, was.
When my father got sick, when I asked him what he wanted me to do with this eulogy, he said “Show them how tough you are.” that is what love meant to John McCain.
Love for my father also meant caring for the nation entrusted to him. My father, the true son of his father and grandfather was born into the character of American greatness, was convinced of the need to defend it with ferocity and faith. John McCain was born in a distant now vanquished outpost of American power, and he understood America as a sacred trust. He understood our republic demands responsibilities, even before it defends its rights. He knew navigating the line between good and evil was often difficult but always simple. He grasped that our purpose and meaning was rooted in a missionary responsibility, stretching back centuries.
Just as the first Americans looked upon a new world full of potential for a grand experiment in freedom and self confidence, so their descendants have a responsibility to defend the old world from its worst self. The America of John McCain is the America of the revolution. fighters with no stomach for the summer soldier and sunshine patriot, making the world anew with bells of America of John McCain is the America of Abraham Lincoln. Fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, and suffering greatly to see it through. The America of John McCain is the America of the boys who rushed the colors in every war across three centuries, knowing in them is the life of the republic, and particularly those by their daring as Ronald Reagan said, gave up their chance as being husbands and fathers and grandfathers and gave up their chance to be revered old men. The America of John McCain is, yes, the America of Vietnam, fighting the fight, even in the most grim circumstances, even in the most distant, hostile corner of the world, standing for the life and liberty of other peoples in other lands.
The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold. she’s resourceful, confident, secure. She meets her responsibilities. she speaks quietly because she’s strong. America does not boast because she has no need to. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great. That fervent faith, that proven devotion, that abiding love, that is what drove my father from the fiery skies above the Red River delta to the brink of the presidency itself.
Love defined my father. As a young man he wondered if he would measure up to his distinguished lineage. I miss him so badly. I want to tell him that take small comfort in this. somewhere in the great beyond where the warriors go, there are two admirals of the United States meeting their much loved son, telling him he is the greatest among them.
Dad, I love you, I always have. All that I am, all that I hope, all that I dream is grounded in what you taught me. You loved me and you showed me what love must be. An ancient Greek historian wrote “The image of great men is woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.” Dad, your greatness is woven into my life, it is woven into my mother’s life, into my sister’s life, and it is woven into my brothers’ lives. It is woven into the life and liberty of the country you sacrificed so much to defend.
Dad, I know you were not perfect. We live in an era where we knock down old American heroes for all their imperfections when no leader wants to admit to fault or failure. You were an exception and gave us an ideal to strive for.
Look, I know you can see this gathering in this cathedral. The nation is here to remember you. Like so many other heroes, you leave us draped in the flag you loved. You defended it, you sacrificed it, you always honored it. It is good to remember we are Americans. We don’t put our heroes on pedestals just to remember them, we raise them up because we want to emulate their virtues, this is how we honor them, this is how we will honor you.
My father gone. My father is gone and my sorrow is immense, but I know his life, and I know it was great because it was good. And as much as I hate to see him go, I do know how it ended. I know that on the afternoon of August 25th in front of Oak Creek in Arizona, surrounded by the family he loved so much, an old man shook off the scars of battle one last time and arose a new man to pilot one last flight up and up and up, busting clouds left and right, straight on through to the kingdom of heaven. And he slipped the earthly bonds, put out his hand, and touched the face of god.
I love you, dad.
Tribute by Senator Joe Lieberman
Cindy McCain and the wonderful McCain family, presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, Secretaries Kissinger and Clinton and all of the other honored guests that are here, ladies and gentlemen, becoming John McCain’s friend is one of the great blessings of my life. Being asked to pay tribute to him today is one of the great honors and for that I thank Cindy and the entire McCain family. I also want to thank them, including his mother, his brother, his sister, and seven wonderful children for the love and support you gave John throughout his life and his service, none more than in the last year of his life. You, Cindy, have been absolutely saintly and we, his friends, cannot thank you enough.
There’s a special satisfaction that comes from serving a cause greater than yourself. I heard John say those words hundreds of times, particularly to young people, and you all heard them a lot as well. But for him we know they were not just words in a speech, they were the creed that he lived by. The greater cause to which he devoted his life was America, not so much the country defined by its borders, but the America of our founding values, freedom, human rights, opportunity, democracy, and equal justice under law. In john’s life, he nobly served and advanced these American values and remarkably his death seems to have reminded the American people that these values are what make us a great nation. Not the tribal partisanship, personal attack politics that have recently characterized our life. This week, the celebration of the life and values and patriotism of this hero I think have taken our country above all that.
In a way it is the last great gift that John McCain gave America and I want to suggest today that we can give a last great gift to him which is to nurture these values and take them forward into the years ahead to make America the better country John always knew it could be. I pray that we will and I ask you to do so as well.
Let me try to pay tribute to this great man by describing and sharing stories from our friendship which began in the early 1990s as part of a bipartisan group pushing our government to stop the aggression and slaughter in Bosnia. Then we began to collaborate on a lot of bipartisan legislation. But really our friendship deepened in our travels together around the world with amigo Lindsey Graham.
When you traveled with John, even with Lindsey along, the purpose was not to have fun. In fact, sometimes it seemed the purpose was just to survive the schedule he had organized. John traveled to get the most out of every day he possibly could and he did. And so did we who were privileged to know him. John traveled to learn so he could be a better senator. He traveled to represent America as best he could wherever we went, and he did. He traveled to support the men and women of our armed services, whether in war or at pace, wherever they were, and they in turn welcomed him in not just respect but awe as the hero John McCain was, is, and always will be.
In shared experiences in long conversations on these trips, John and I got to know and trust each other as friends in a way that doesn’t happen because it can happen much any more in the frenetic Washington life of senators. Our friendship taught me many things, including I must add some jokes that I otherwise never would have known. John loved to laugh and make others laugh.
When he found a joke that people liked, he told it over and over and over again. One of my favorites was about the two inmates going through the food line for dinner at the state penitentiary. One says to the other “The food is terrible here” and the other says “It was a lot better when I was governor.” Yeah, I heard that one often and I laughed every time because John laughed so hard every time he told it.
The range of john’s mind’s interest and experience was impressive and often surprising. You couldn’t characterize this man. He loved to read history and fiction and talk about it, argue about it. He had a pervasive curiosity about everything in life. He loved the outdoors and all of god’s creatures, large and small, who lived there. Most people would be surprised by how much pleasure this combative senator got from watching the hummingbirds at the McCain home outside Sedona, Arizona.
But of course John’s great strength was his character. He was honest, fair, and civilized. In all the times we were together, I never heard him say a bigoted word about anyone.
The American people saw this great quality most clearly during the 2000 campaign when the woman made an offensive statement against then senator Barack Obama. To me what was most impressive about John’s reaction was that it was pure reflex. It was who john was. he didn’t need to consult anyone. He immediately defended his opponent’s name and honor and thereby elevated for that moment our politics and made us a more perfect union.
Personally, I can tell you that was a real friend in accommodating what were to him my unusual practices as a religiously observant Jew, whether it was walking with me on a Saturday to an important meeting or turning down a popular Friday night dinner invitation at the Munich security conference we went to every year because it was too far to walk, we would stay in the hotel and have what John learned to call our shalom dinners. With John they weren’t that peaceful. John naturally in doing these wonderful acts of friendship grumbled all the way about what I was putting him through, you know. Right now I think he is probably deriving some pleasure from the fact it turned out his funeral was held on a Saturday and I had to walk to get here. I’m sure if he were here now, he would tell me that was divine justice.
He ultimately as he did with so much of his life turned these interfaith interferences into a truly hilarious comedy routine. It began with a solemn pronouncement by John that he was converting to Judaism. Then he explained less solemnly “I do this not because of any particularly liking for the religion, it is just that for so many years I had to go along with all of Joe’s religious nonsense, i might as well convert and get the benefits.”
One of his favorite targets was the sabbath elevators in Israel hotels, preprogrammed to stop at every floor. John had many virtues, but patience was not one of them. Therefore, a ride on those shabot elevators weren’t the happiest times we spent together. I say this to say in stories how full and genuine were his acceptance of my practices which were different from what he knew, but to make a larger point. I can tell you everything we did together around the world and here in Washington and across America, he showed that same acceptance, respect, curiosity about everybody’s religious observances, and about everything else about them that was different from himself and his own experiences.
I said patience was one virtue John didn’t have. Forgiveness was a great virtue he did have. Here’s a story to make that clear. Once on a trip to Hanoi as we were touring the Hanoi Hilton, a crowd of Vietnamese college students recognized John and they began to chant wildly “McCain, McCain.” They wanted to take his pictures and have him sign autographs. When it was over, I asked him why he got such a rock star reception in Hanoi and with classic directness he said “Well, first, Joe, it is because they have been taught that I was treated a lot better here than I really was. And second, it is because of the normalization of relations between the US. and Vietnam.” Well, that was a classic McCain understatement.
Along with president Clinton and John Kerry, John McCain was the leader in congress in bringing about the US and Vietnam, an extraordinary act of personal forgiveness when you consider what the Vietnamese did to him during his five and a half years as a prisoner of war. After his injuries in Vietnam he could not pursue his ambitions in the navy so he turned to government service as his greater American cause.
Of course, I didn’t know john in his youth. I don’t think he was born with the natural skills of a legislator. And yet he learned them, became a great one. He knew when to be immovable, when to negotiate and compromise to get something done. he regularly reached across party lines because he knew that was the only way to solve problems and seize opportunities for the people of our country and his state. As a result, his legislative record is extremely impressive. He also fought and lost some big battles to stop climate change, to close the gun show loophole, to broadly reform our immigration laws. But that never seemed to get him down or diminish his ardor for the next battle. He loved to win but also loved a good fight for a just cause, even if it didn’t succeed. overall, he won many more than he lost.
All of his big wins were achieved with bipartisan support. In 2008 when he was republican nominee for president, he had a far out idea of asking a democrat to be his running mate. Can you believe that? Let me explain it to you as he did. When he first talked to me about it I said “You know, John, I’m really honored, but I don’t see how you can do it. Even though I won my last election as an independent, I’m still a registered democrat.” And John’s response was direct and really ennobling. “That’s the point, Joe,” he said with a certain impatience. “You’re a democrat, I’m a republican. We could give our country the bipartisan leadership it needs for a change.”
When john returned to the senate after his surgery last summer and voted against the republican health care bill, some people accused him of being disloyal to his party and the president, but that was not the case. If you listen to the speech he gave that day, you’ll know it was not the case. That speech made clear that his vote was not really against that bill but against the mindless partisanship that has taken control of both our political parties and our government and produced totally one sided responses to complicated national problems like health care. And of course he was right.
In his remarks last July John also spoke eloquently of our position in the world. Of America’s continuing responsibility for principal leadership in the world. It was as if he thought that might be one of his last best opportunities to move his colleagues and his country. It’s a speech worth reading, but I just want to quote one sentence. “What greater cause could we hope to serve than helping keep America the strong, aspiring, inspirational beacon of liberty and dignity and defender of the dignity of all human beings.” That in short was the McCain American policy. Moral, engaged, and strong. Again, these words were not just rhetoric for John, he acted on them, he lived them.
in our travels around the world i can tell you he always reassured our allies and unsettled our enemies, standing for America’s best values, attacking totalitarian governments, whether in Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang or anywhere else. If we were going to a country not entirely free, John insisted we meet with local human rights activists as well as the government.
I will never forget that day in Myanmar during the military dictate dictatorship there, we met three men who had just been released from political prison, showed terrible signs of physical and psychological abuse, and yet they told us that they would never have survived if they had not heard in jail that the great American senator John McCain had supported their cause, read their names on the US Senate floor, and demanded their release.
On another occasion we visited a refugee camp for Syrians who had been forced out of their country into Turkey by the brutal aggression of Assad, the Iranians, and the Russians. We were the first members of congress to visit that camp and there was some concern about the reception we would receive. Earlier in the day, an official of the UN had been there, was booed and had shoes thrown at him. When we arrived, a large crowd of Syrian refugees had formed and they were cheering and chanting words of welcome and thanks and the two words they chanted most were John McCain.
What is most remarkable about these two stories, and I could tell you many more, is how unremarkable they are. And that’s because the name John McCain based on the actions of the man John McCain had become a source of hope and inspiration for oppressed people throughout the world, as it was a source of security for allied countries that share our values.
One last story. One of John’s favorite cities in the world was Jerusalem and one of his favorite things to do there was to stand on the balcony with Lindsey and me of our hotel looking out at the old city and discussing all of the religious and political history that happened there over the centuries. Ao when I first told John that I had decided not to run for the senate again in 2012, he was puzzled and frankly even a little bit angry. But then the next day he called me and this is my best recollection of the conversation. He said “You know, I’ve been thinking if you go out into the private sector, you’re going to make some more money, and then you can afford to buy a second home in Jerusalem that has an extra room for me with a balcony where we can look out and that city and its history.”
Since then when I talked to John or visited with him, he would ask me, “Joey, have you made enough money yet to buy that place in Jerusalem?” and I would answer “Not yet, Johnny, but I’m getting closer.” Now sadly fate has intervened before we could realize that dream but I am comforted by the fact that Jerusalem is not just a holy, historic city, it is also the visionary symbol of the dreams that all people share and the destiny we all desire. It is the original heavenly shining city on the hill. In that sense for many people in the life of the spirit, Jerusalem, the shining city on the hill are really heaven, and it is to that heavenly Jerusalem where I am confident the soul of John Sidney McCain III is going now. I want to imagine that there is going to be a beautiful home waiting for him there with a balcony from which he can contemplate the shining city and hopefully inspire us here on earth to conduct ourselves with just some of the patriotism, principles and courage that characterize his magnificent life of service to America and to so many noble causes greater than himself. God speed, dear friend. may angels sing you to your eternal home.
Tribute by Dr. Henry Kissinger
Our country has had the good fortune that at times of national trial a few great personalities have emerged to remind us of our essential unity and inspire us our sustaining values. John McCain was one of those gifts of destiny.
I met john for the first time in April, 1973 at a White House reception for prisoners returned from captivity in Vietnam. He had been much on my mind during the negotiation to end the Vietnam War, oddly also because his father, then commander in chief of the Pacific command, when briefing the president answered references to his son by saying only “I pray for him.”
In the McCain family national service was its own reward that did not allow for special treatment. I thought of that when his Vietnamese captors during the final phase of negotiations offered to release John so that he could return with me on the official plane that had brought me to Hanoi. Against all odds, he thanked them for the offer but refused it. When we finally met, his greeting was both self effacing and moving. “Thank you for saving my honor.” He did not tell me then or ever that he had had an opportunity to be freed years earlier but had refused, a decision for which he had to endure additional periods of isolation and hardship. nor did he ever speak of his captivity again during the near half century of close friendship.
John’s focus was on creating a better future. as a senator, he supported the restoration of relations with Vietnam, helped bring it about on a bipartisan basis in the Clinton administration and became one of the advocates of reconciliation with his enemy. Honor, it is an intangible quality, not obligatory. It has no code. It reflects an inward compulsion, free of self interest. It fulfills a cause, not a personal ambition. it represents what a society lives for beyond the necessities of the moment. Love makes life possible; honor and nobility. For john it was a way of life.
John returned to America divided over its presidency, divided over the war. Amidst all of the turmoil and civic unrest, divided over the best way to protect our country and over whether it should be respected for its power or its ideals. John came back from the war and declared this is a false choice. America owed it to itself to embrace both strengths and ideals in decades of congressional service, ultimately as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John was an exponent of an America strong enough to its purpose.
But John believed also in a compassionate America, guided by core principles for which American foreign policy must always stand. “With liberty and justice for all” is not an empty sentiment he argued, it is the foundation of our national consciousness. To John, American advantages had universal applicability. I do not believe he said that there’s an errant exception any more than there is a black exception or an Asian or Latin exception. He warned against temptation of withdrawal from the world. In this manner John McCain ‘s name became synonymous with an America that reached out to oblige the powerful to be loyal and give hope to the oppressed.
John lines of all these battles for decency and freedom. He was an engaged warrior fighting for his causes with a brilliance, with courage, and with humility. John was all about hope. In a commencement speech at Ohio’s Wesleyan University John summed up the essence of his engagement of a lifetime. “No one of us, if they have character, leaves behind a wasted life.” Like most people of my age I feel a longing for what is lost and cannot be restored. If the happy and casual beauty of youth prove something better can endure and endure until our last moment on earth and that is the moment in our lives when we sacrifice for something greater than ourselves. Heroes inspire us by the matter of factness of their sacrifice and the elevation of the root vision.
The world will be lonelier without John McCain, his faith in America and his instinctive sense of moral duty. None of us will ever forget how even in his parting John has bestowed on us a much needed moment of unity and renewed faith in the possibilities of America. Henceforth, the country’s honor is ours to sustain.
Tribute by President George W. Bush
Cindy and the McCain Family, I am honored to be with you to offer my sympathies and to celebrate a great life. The nation joins your extraordinary family in grief and gratitude for John McCain.
Some lives are so vivid, it is difficult to imagine them ended. Some voices are so vibrant and distinctive, it is hard to think of them stilled. A man who seldom rested is laid to rest. And his absence is tangible, like the silence after a mighty roar.
The thing about John’s life was the amazing sweep of it. From a tiny prison cell in Vietnam to the floor of the United States Senate. From troublemaking plebe to presidential candidate. Wherever John passed throughout the world, people immediately knew there was a leader in their midst. In one epic life was written the courage and greatness of our country.
For John and me, there was a personal journey – a hard-fought political history. Back in the day, he could frustrate me. (Laughter.) And I know he’d say the same thing about me. But he also made me better. In recent years, we sometimes talked of that intense period like football players remembering a big game. In the process, rivalry melted away. In the end, I got to enjoy one of life’s great gifts: the friendship of John McCain. And I will miss him.
Moments before my last debate – ever – with Senator John Kerry in Phoenix, I was trying to gather some thoughts in the holding room. I felt a presence… opened my eyes…and six inches from my face was McCain, who yelled, “RELAX! RELAX!”
John was, above all, a man with a code. He lived by a set of public virtues that brought strength and purpose to his life and to his country.
He was courageous – with a courage that frightened his captors and inspired his countrymen.
He was honest, no matter whom it offended. Presidents were not spared.
He was honorable – always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings.
He loved freedom, with the passion of a man who knew its absence.
He respected the dignity inherent in every life – a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators.
Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots. There was something deep inside him that made him stand up for the little guy – to speak for forgotten people in forgotten places.
One friend from his Naval Academy days recalled how John – while a lowly plebe – reacted to seeing an upperclassman verbally abuse a steward. Against all tradition, he told the jerk to pick on someone his own size. It was a familiar refrain during his six decades of service.
Where did such strength of conviction come from? Perhaps from a family where honor was in the atmosphere. Or from the firsthand experience of cruelty, which left physical reminders that lasted his whole life. Or from some deep well of moral principle. Whatever the cause, it was this combination of courage and decency that defined John’s calling – and so closely paralleled the calling of his country.
It is this combination of courage and decency that makes the American military something new in history – an unrivaled power for good. It is this combination of courage and decency that set America on a journey into the world – to liberate death camps, to stand guard against extremism, and to work for the true peace that comes only with freedom.
John felt these commitments in his bones. It is a tribute to his moral compass that dissidents and prisoners in so many places – from Russia, to North Korea, to China – knew that he was on their side. And I think their respect meant more to him than any medals and honors life could bring.
This passion for fairness and justice extended to our own military. When a Private was poorly equipped, or a Seaman was overworked in terrible conditions, John enjoyed nothing more than dressing down an Admiral or a General. He remained that troublesome plebe to the end.
Those in political power were not exempt. At various points throughout his long career, John confronted policies and practices that he believed were unworthy of his country. To the face of those in authority, John McCain would insist: We are better than this. America is better than this.
John – as he was the first to tell you – was not a perfect man. But he dedicated his life to national ideals that are as perfect as men and women have yet conceived. He was motivated by a vision of America carried ever forward, ever upward, on the strength of its principles.
He saw our country not only as a physical place or power, but as the carrier of enduring human aspirations. As an advocate for the oppressed. As a defender of the peace. As a promise, unwavering, undimmed, unequaled.
The strength of a democracy is renewed by reaffirming the principles on which it was founded. And America somehow has always found leaders who were up to that task, particularly at times of greatest need. John was born to meet that kind of challenge – to defend and demonstrate the defining ideals of our nation.
If we are ever tempted to forget who we are, to grow weary of our cause, John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder: We are better than this. America is better than this.
John was a restless soul. He really didn’t glory in success or wallow in failure, because he was always on to the next thing. A friend said, “He can’t stand to stay in the same experience.” One of his books ended with the words: “And I moved on.”
John has moved on. He would probably not want us to dwell on it. But we are better for his presence among us. The world is smaller for his departure. And we will remember him as he was: unwavering, undimmed, unequaled.
Tribute by President Barack Obama
To John’s beloved family, Mrs. McCain, to Cindy and the McCain children, President and Mrs. Bush, President and Secretary Clinton, Vice President and Mrs. Biden, Vice President and Mrs. Cheney, Vice President Gore, and as John would say, my friends. We come to celebrate an extraordinary man. A statesman, a patriot who embodied so much that is best in America.
President Bush and I are among the fortunate few who competed against John at the highest levels of politics. He made us better presidents just as he made the senate better, just as he makes this country better.
For someone like John to ask you while he is still alive to stand and speak of him when he is gone is a precious and singular honor. Now, when John called me with that request earlier this year, I’ll admit sadness and also a certain surprise. After our conversation ended, I realized how well it captured some of John’s essential qualities.
To start with, John liked being unpredictable, even a little contrarian. He had no interest in conforming to some prepackaged version of what a senator should be and he didn’t want a memorial that was going to be prepackaged either. It also showed John’s disdain for self pity. He had been to hell and back and yet somehow never lost his energy or his optimism or his zest for life. So cancer did not scare him. And he would maintain that buoyant spirit to the very end, too stubborn to sit still, as ever, fiercely devoted to his friends and most of all to his family. It showed his irreverence, his sense of humor, a little bit of a mischievous streak. what better way to get a last laugh than make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience? And most of all it showed a largeness of spirit. An ability to see past differences in search of common ground.
And in fact on the surface, John and i could not have been more different. We’re of different generations. I came from a broken home and never knew my father. John was the stein of one of America’s most distinguished military families. I have a reputation for keeping cool, John not so much. We were standard bearers of different American political traditions and throughout my presidency John never hesitated to tell me when he thought I was screwing up, which by his calculation was about once a day. But for all our differences, for all of the times we sparred, I never tried to hide, and I think John came to understand the long-standing admiration that I had for him.
By his own account John was a rebellious young man. In his case, what’s faster way to distinguish yourself when you’re the son and grandson of admirals than to mutiny. Eventually, though, he concluded that the only way to really make his mark on the world is to commit to something bigger than yourself. For John, that meant answering the highest of callings, serving his country in a time of war.
Others this week and this morning have spoken to the depths of his torment and the depths of his courage there in the cells of Hanoi when day after day, year after year that youthful iron was tempered into steel. And it brings to mind something that Hemingway wrote, a book that Meghan referred to, his favorite book. “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”
In captivity John learned in ways that few of us ever will the meaning of those words, how each moment, each day, each choice is a test. And John McCain passed that test again and again and again. And that’s why when John spoke of virtues like service and valor they weren’t just words to him, it was a truth that he had lived and for which he was prepared to die. And it forced even the most cynical to consider what were we doing for our country? What might we risk everything for?
Much has been said this week about what a maverick John was. In fact, John was a pretty conservative guy. Trust me, I was on the receiving end of some of those votes. But he did understand that some principles transcend politics. Some values transcend party. He considered it part of his duty to uphold those principles and uphold those values.
John cared about the institutions of self government, our constitution, our bill of rights, rule of law. Separation of powers. Even the arcane rules and procedures of the senate. He knew that in a nation as big and boisterous and diverse as ours, those institutions, those rules, those norms are what bind us together. Give shape and order to our common life. Even when we disagree. Especially when we disagree.
John believed in honest argument and hearing our views. He understood that if we get in the habit of bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our democracy will not work. That’s why he was willing to buck his own party at times. occasionally work across the aisle on campaign finance reform and immigration reform. That’s why he championed a free and independent press as vital to our democratic debate. And the fact it earned him good coverage didn’t hurt either.
John understood as JFK understood, as Ronald Reagan understood that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our blood line, not on what we look like, what our last names are, not based on where our parents or grandparents came from or how recently they arrived, but on adherence to a common creed that all of us are created equal. Endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.
It has been mentioned today, seen footage this week, John pushing back against supporters that challenged my patriotism during the 2008 campaign. I was grateful but I wasn’t surprised. As Joe Lieberman said, that was John’s instinct. I never saw John treat anyone differently because of their race or religion or gender. That in those moments that have been referred to during the campaign he saw himself as defending America’s character, not just mine. He considered it the imperative of every citizen that loves this country to treat all people fairly.
And finally while John and I disagreed on all kinds of foreign policy issues, we stood together on America’s role as the one nation, believing that with great power and great blessings comes great responsibility. That burden is borne most heavily by our men and women in uniform. Service members like Doug, Jimmy, Jack who followed their father’s footsteps, as well as families that serve alongside our troops. But John understood that our security and our influence was won not just by our military might, not just by our wealth, not just by our ability to bend others to our will, but from our capacity to inspire others with our adherence to a set of universal values. Like rule of law and human rights and insistence on the god-given dignity of every human being.
Of course John was the first to tell us he was not perfect. Like all of us that go into public service, he did have an ego. Like all of us there was no doubt some votes he cast, some compromises he struck, some decisions he made that he wished he could have back.
It is no secret, it has been mentioned that he had a temper, and when it flared up, it was a force of nature, a wonder to behold. His jaw grinding, his face reddening, his eyes boring a hole right through you. Not that I ever experienced it firsthand, mind you. But to know john was to know that as quick as his passions might flare, he was just as quick to forgive and ask for forgiveness. He knew more than most his own flaws, his blind spots, and he knew how to laugh at himself. And that self awareness made him all the more compelling.
We didn’t advertise it, but every so often over the course of my presidency John would come over to the White House and we’d just sit and talk in the oval office, just the two of us. We would talk about policy and we’d talk about family and we’d talk about the state of our politics. And our disagreements didn’t go away during these private conversations. Those were real and they were often deep. but we enjoyed the time we shared away from the bright lights and we laughed with each other and we learned from each other and we never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other patriotism or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team. We never doubted we were on the same team.
For all of our differences, we shared a fidelity to the ideals for which generations of Americans have marched and fought and sacrificed and given their lives. We considered our political battles a privilege, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those ideals at home and do our best to advance them around the world. We saw this country as a place where anything is possible. and citizenship as an obligation to ensure it forever remains that way.
More than once during his career John drew comparisons to Teddy Roosevelt. I am sure it has been noted that Roosevelt’s men in the arena seems tailored to John. most of you know it. Roosevelt speaks of those who strive, who dare to do great things, who sometimes win and sometimes come up short but always relish a good fight. A contrast to those cold, timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. Isn’t that the spirit we celebrate this week? That striving to be better, to do better, worthy of the great inheritance that our founders bestowed. So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty. Trafficking in bombastic manufactured outrage, it’s politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.
Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. but what will happen in all the other days that will ever come can depend on what you do today. What better way to honor John McCain’s life of service than as best we can follow his example to prove that the willingness to get in the arena and fight for this country is not reserved for the few, it is open to all of us, and in fact it is demanded of all of us as citizens of this great republic. That’s perhaps how we honor him best, by recognizing that there are some things bigger than party or ambition or money or fame or power, that the things that are worth risking everything for, principles that are eternal, truths that are abiding. At his best, John showed us what that means. For that, we are all deeply in his debt.
May God bless John McCain. May God bless this country he served so well.