Former president George W. Bush gave a moving speech in honor of John McCain at the Washington DC memorial service for the late Senator who passed away on August 25th after a year-long battle with brain cancer. Like Barack Obama, who also delivered a speech at the memorial, Bush had the distinction of running against the Arizona senator in a presidential campaign.
Though the two were known to have a complicated political relationship, notably butting heads on several occasions throughout their careers on the Hill, McCain specifically requested for Bush to speak on the occasion shortly before his passing.
READ THE FULL TRANSCRIPT HERE:
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 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 trouble-making pleb to presidential candidate. Wherever John passed throughout the world, people immediately knew there was a leader in their midst. And one epic life was written the courage of our country. For John, it was a personal journey, hard fought.
He could frustrate me, and I know he’d say the same thing about me. But he also made me better. In recent years we sometimes talk 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’ll miss it.
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 a 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, could not abide bigots and swaggering. He spoke up for the little guy, forgotten people in forgotten places. One friend from naval academy days recalls John 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 the six decades of service.
Where does such strength and 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 closely paralleled the calling of his country.
This combination of courage and decency that makes the American military something new in history. Unrivaled power for good. 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. The passion for fairness and justice extended to our own military when a private was poorly seaman was overworked in terrible conditions, John enjoyed nothing more than dressing down an admiral or a general. He remained a troublesome pleb to the end.
Those in political power were not exempt. At various points throughout his long career, John confronted policies and practices he believed were unworthy of his country. John McCain would insist we are better than this. America is better than this.
John is the first to tell you he 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, unequalled. Strength of democracy is renewed by reaffirming the principles on which it was founded and America somehow always found leaders who were up to that task particularly at the time of greatest need.
John was born to meet that kind of challenge, to defend and demonstrate the defining ideals of our nation. If we’re ever tempted to forget who we are, grow weary of our cause, John’s voice will 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 onto the next thing, said he can’t 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, unequalled.