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 warrior, 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 made this country better. So, for someone like John to ask you, while he’s still alive, to stand and speak of him when he’s 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. But 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 pre-packaged version of what a senator should be, and he didn’t want a memorial that was going to be pre-packaged 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, opinionated 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.
After all, what better way to get a last laugh to 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 son 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, that’s understandable, what 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. And for John, that meant answering the highest of callers, 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.
That brings to mind something that Hemingway wrote in the 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 duty, it didn’t ring hollow. They weren’t just words to him. It was a truth that he had lived and for which he was prepared to die. 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.
Now, 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. That 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. It gives shape and order to our common life.
Even when we disagree. Especially when we disagree. John believed in honest argument and hearing other views.
He understood that if we get in the habit of bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our system 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 that it earned him some 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 bloodline, not on what we look like, what our last names are, it’s 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.