Remarks by President Barack Obama at the Memorial Service for Senator John McCain
Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
Saturday, September 1, 2018
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 competed against John. He made us better presidents, just as he made the Senate better, just as he made this country better. So for someone 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. 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 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, 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 than 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 scion 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 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. It 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. And it forced even the most cynical to consider, what were we doing for our country? What might we risk everything for?
And 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. They give 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 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 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. It has been mentioned today, and we've seen footage this week John pushing back against supporters who 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. And I'm certain that in those moments that have been referred to during the campaign, he saw himself as defending America's character, not just mine. For he considered it the imperative of every citizen who 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 indispensible 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, and Jack who followed their father's footsteps, as well as the families who 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 an insistence on the God-given dignity of every human being.
Of course, John was the first to tell us that he was not perfect. Like all of us who 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's no secret—it's 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, and 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. And we'd 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 man's 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 here at home and to do our best to advance them around the world. We saw this country as a place where anything is possible, and citizenship is an obligation to ensure it forever remains that way.
And more than once during his career, John drew comparisons to Teddy Roosevelt. And I am sure it has been noted that Roosevelt's "man in the arena" oration 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, to be 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 bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It's a 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 there are some 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.