In remarks both personal and philosophical, McCain recalled ancestors buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and mused about "the honor we earn and the love we give when we work and sacrifice with others for a cause greater than our self-interest."
A prisoner of war in Vietnam at a time his own father commanded all U.S. forces in the Pacific, McCain said, "He prayed on his knees every night for my safe return. ... Yet, when duty required it, he gave the order for B-52s to bomb Hanoi, in close proximity to my prison."
The Arizona senator spoke at Mississippi State University near a naval air field named for his grandfather. It was the first stop on a weeklong tour that his campaign called a "Service to America Tour," an attempt to introduce him to the public as his party's candidate for the fall campaign. (
The Arizona senator emerged victorious from the Republican primaries weeks ago. Seven months before the election, polls point toward a competitive race with either Sens.or , rivals in a marathon struggle for the Democratic nomination.
McCain mentioned neither of his potential opponents in his prepared remarks. Nor did he discuss the war in Iraq or the spike in home mortgage foreclosures - major issues where he differs from both his potential opponents.
In comments to reporters en route to the speech, he said it could be two or three days before the outcome is known of the Iraqi government's attempt to take control of Basra from Shiite militias.
He said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the move on his own, adding, "I was surprised because I didn't think he'd do it yet."
In his speech, McCain offered a list of general do's and don'ts for government, details to be filled in at a later date.
Government must avoid through inattention or arrogance making it "harder for parents to have the resources to succeed in the greatest work of their lives raising their children," he said. But it should "help make health care affordable and accessible to the least fortunate among us."
He said "tax policy must not rob parents of the means to care for their children and provide them the opportunities their parents provided them. Government spending must not be squandered on things we do not need and can't afford."
He added that "government can't just throw money at public education while reinforcing the failures of many of our schools, but should, through choice and competition, by rewarding good teachers and holding bad teachers accountable, help parents prepare their children for the challenges and opportunities of the global economy."
In addition, "Government must be attentive to the impact on families of parents who have lost jobs in our changing economy that won't come back." He said current job retraining programs are "antiquated, repetitive and ineffective."
In an interview with CBS News' Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith, McCain also weighed in on.
"We've got to try to separate the honest family members who, frankly, have been victimized and those who are speculators or people who lent this money knowing full well it wouldn't be paid back," he said. "We need more transparency. We're going to need more oversight." (
Family was a recurrent theme in McCain's speech, and he dwelt at length on his own.
"A distant ancestor served on General Washington's staff, and it seems my ancestors fought in most wars in our nation's history," he said.
As a boy, McCain said he spent part of his summers on his uncle's place in Mississippi, property that generations of McCains had left to join the military.
He recalled his grandfather, a four-star admiral, as a rumpled man who worked with his shoes off, "tobacco leavings ... always scattered about him."
His grandfather commanded a carrier task force in the Pacific in World War II, and was given "a privileged place on the deck of the USS Missouri to witness the signing of the unconditional surrender that ended the war," McCain said with evident pride.
The senator's own father commanded a submarine in the Pacific during World War II. Later, during Vietnam he led all U.S. forces in the Pacific at a time when his son was a prisoner of war.
Both father and grandfather were four-star admirals, the only such pair in Navy history.
"They were my first heroes, and their respect for me has been one of the most lasting ambitions of my life," McCain said.
"They gave their lives to their country, and taught me lessons about honor, courage, duty, perseverance and leadership that I didn't fully grasp until later in life, but remembered when I needed them most.
"I have been an imperfect servant of my country for many years. But I am their son, and they showed me how to love my country, and that has made all the difference for me."