Principles, values that transcend ambition, politics

Ogunsakin Mustapha
15 Min Read

By Barack Obama

To John’s beloved family, Mrs. McCain, 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 and Mrs. Gore, and as John would say, “My friends.” We’ve 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, and 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 honour. 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; he had no interest in conformity 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, yet somehow he never lost his energy, optimism or his zest for life, so cancer did not scare him, and he would maintain that buoyant spirit till 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 humour, 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!

Most of all, it showed a largeness of spirit; an ability to see past differences in search of common ground. 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 on the other hand was the son of one of America’s most distinguished military families. I have a reputation for keeping cool, but 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 and all the times we sparked, 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 was understandable; what faster way to distinguish yourself when you’re the son and grandson of Admiral, 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 calls. 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 and the book that Megan referred to, his favourite book, “Today is only one day in all of 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.” In captivity, John learnt 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 over and over again. That’s why when John spoke with virtues like service and duty, it didn’t ring hollow. They weren’t just words to him because 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?”

Late Senator John McCain

Much has been said this week, about what a “Maverick” John was but 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 of those principles transcend politics, that some values transcend party. He considered it part of his duty to uphold those principles and 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, rules and norms are what bind us together, to give shape and order to our common life, even and 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 walk 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 and Ronald Reagan also understood, that part of what makes our country great, is that our membership is based not on our bloodline, not what we look like, what our last names are, 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 and endowed by our Creator, certain inalienable rights.

It’s been mentioned today and we’ve seen footage of 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, “It was John’s instinct.” I never saw John treat anyone differently because of their race, 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. He considered it the imperative of every citizen who loves this country to treat all people fairly.

Finally, while John and I disagreed on all kinds of foreign policy issues, we stood together on America’s role as the one indispensable nation, believing that with great power and blessings, come great responsibility. That burden is borne most heavily by 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 influence were won not just by our military might, our wealth or 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 the 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 and 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 through you; not that I ever experienced it first hand, 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 about Policy, Family and the state of our Politics. Our disagreements didn’t go away during these private conversations; those were real and they were often deep. However, we enjoyed the time we shared away from the bright lights, we laughed with each other and learnt from each other. We never doubted the other man’s sincerity or 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 of which generations of Americans have marched and fought and sacrificed and given their lives. We considered our political challenges a privilege, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those ideals here at home, and to 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 and I’m sure it’s been noted that Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” oration seems tailored to John. Most of you know Roosevelt speaks of men who strive and dare to do great things, who sometimes win and sometimes come up short, but always relish s 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, mean and petty, trafficking and bombast, and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It is a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but is in fact born of fear.

John called on us to be bigger and better than that. “Today is only one day in all of 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 honour John McCain’s life and service than as best we can, and 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 is perhaps how we honour him best; by recognising that there are some things bigger than party or ambition or money or fame or power. That there are some things worth risking everything for, principles that are eternal, truths that are abiding. At his best, John showed us what that means and for that, we are all deeply in his debt. May God bless John McCain. May God bless this country that he served so well.

Former US President, Barack Obama delivered this tribute at the burial of Senator John McCain on September 2, 2018.

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