“A warrior. A statesman. A patriot. Who embodied so much that is best in America,” Obama said, noting the former senator never shied away from letting the occupants of the Oval Office he never captured know when they were, as Obama put it, “screwing up.”
“He made us better presidents. Just as he made the Senate better. Just as he made this country better,” he said.
Obama revealed that, despite McCain’s seemingly daily critiques of his foreign policy, “every so often” his 2008 campaign opponent would come to the White House for a one-on-one Oval Office chat. They talked about “policy and family and the state of our politics,” he said.
Watch: Bush, Obama Eulogize Former Political Rival and Friend, John McCain
“Our disagreements didn’t go away during these private conversations. Those were real and they were often deep,” he said. “But we enjoyed the time we shared away from the bright lights,” noting they “laughed together and learned from each other.”
And in a rebuke of the current era of American politics, and not noting it helped define his own presidency, Obama said he and McCain “never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other man’s patriotism” because “when all was said and done, we were on the same team - we never doubted we were on the same team.”
Obama, in his usual sweeping prose, urged Americans to follow the late lawmaker and former Navy pilot’s example to pursue causes that are “bigger” than themselves, and to “get in the arena and fight for this country.”
The latter, he said, McCain understood is “demanded of us all” and is not “reserved for the few.”
“That’s perhaps how we honor him best,” Obama said, “To realize some things are … worth risking everything for” and that America is about “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.”
The 44th president said he felt “sadness and a certain surprise” after McCain phoned him earlier this year to ask him to deliver one of the D.C. eulogies.
“But after our conversation ended, I realized how well it captured some of John’s essential qualities,” describing the late lawmaker as “unpredictable” and a “contrarian.”
“It showed his irreverence, his sense of humor, his mischievous streak,” Obama said as the crowd laughed in unison, including members of the McCain family. “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?”
But then Obama turned serious, saying the invitation showed McCain’s “ability to see past differences to see common ground,” noting “on the surface, John and I could not have been more different.”
The late senator criticized Obama on a nearly daily basis, especially on foreign policy matters, after the upstart Illinois Democrat defeated him in the 2008 presidential campaign. The longtime top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee often accused Obama of withdrawing the United States from what he saw as its rightful place as the most powerful country — and, therefore, the one that steps in to resolve problems around the globe.
Watch: Meghan McCain’s Loving Tribute, Scathing Rebuke of Trump at Father’s Funeral
One of McCain’s often-uttered lines was the 44th commander in chief was “leading from behind,” even giving Obama a grade of “F” on foreign policy during his final months in office. He predicted Obama and the U.S. would regret his decision to remove all American troops from Iraq; months later, experts say, McCain was proven correct when the Islamic State extremist group began to form and become more lethal in parts of Iraq.
During their 2008 race, McCain stopped a woman at a campaign event who said she couldn’t trust Obama being president because “he’s an Arab.” McCain shook his head and snatched the microphone from her hands, saying: "No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
Obama on Saturday recounted finding out McCain had shut down the woman, saying he was grateful - but I wasn’t surprised.”
“It was John’s instinct. I never saw John treat anyone differently because of their race or their religion or their gender,” he said. “He saw himself as defending America’s character, not just mine.”
And during his concession speech on Election Night, the GOP nominee sent a message to the country after racial tensions were part of the campaign, saying: “I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”
Rick Davis, Senator John McCain’s former presidential campaign manager and a family spokesman, read the following farewell statement from the senator at a Monday news conference at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix:
“My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for sixty years, and especially my fellow Arizonans, thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.
I have often observed that I am the luckiest person on earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I have loved my life, all of it. I have had experiences, adventures and friendships enough for ten satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anyone else’s.
I owe that satisfaction to the love of my family. No man ever had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine. And I owe it to America. To be connected to America’s causes — liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people — brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.
Watch: A Life in the Public Eye: A Look Back at McCain’s Congressional Career
“Fellow Americans” — that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the process.
We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.
We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.
Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with the heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening.
I feel it powerfully still.
Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.
Farewell, fellow Americans. God bless you, and God bless America.
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Wiping away tears, Sen. John McCain’s message for the Naval Academy’s midshipmen was rooted in the spirit of service.
But the Arizona Republican had a not-too-veiled message for the current commander in chief.
“We have to fight against propaganda and crackpot conspiracy theories. We have to fight isolationism, protectionism, and nativism. We have to defeat those who would worsen our divisions,” McCain said. “We have to remind our sons and daughters that we became the most powerful nation on earth by tearing down walls, not building them.”
That particular line generated applause among the young men and women in uniform who had filled the alumni hall for the lecture. The message had echoes of the remarks McCain delivered two weeks ago in Philadelphia, accepting an award from the National Constitution Center.
There, he warned of “half-baked, spurious nationalism,” but the tone here was different, perhaps owing to the younger audience.
Fighting that battle, he said, “isn’t your job. Not directly.”
“It belongs to those of us who hold office and are responsible for making sure you’re sent where you’re needed and equipped and ready for your missions,” the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said.
During a Q&A session with the midshipmen that McCain repeatedly extended despite the fact that the event, with its to-the-minute military precision, was already running late, he faced a question about the news of the day and Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“I’ve seen these scandals before, and it’s a centipede. Every few days, another shoe drops, and so the latest news today of these indictments, I could have predicted these months ago,” McCain said of the indictments of onetime Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.
The senator said he was not offering career advice, but he was clearly encouraging the students to become involved in cybersecurity.
“I’m very worried about the erosion of confidence of the American people in the election system, because if we lose confidence in the results of our elections — that we don’t believe them — that attacks the very fundamentals of what America was all about and was founded on,” McCain said.
“We have to make sure that we get into this business of cyberwarfare,” he added, a likely allusion to the Russian election interference.
McCain also offered a history lesson featuring a fairly direct analogy between nationalist isolationism and the rise of fascism after World War I.
“The American example and American leadership are indispensable to securing a peaceful and prosperous future. Our failure to remain engaged in Europe and enforce the hard-won peace of 1918 had made that clear,” he said. “There could be no more isolationism, no more tired resignation — no more ‘America First,’” he said, a swipe at President Donald Trump’s unapologetic recycle slogan.
“We are asleep in our echo chambers, where our views are always affirmed and information that contradicts them is always fake. We are asleep in our polarized politics, which exaggerates our differences, looks for scapegoats instead of answers, and insists we get all our way all the time from a system of government based on compromise, principled cooperation and restraint,” he said. “It’s time to wake up.”
McCain’s Monday visit to the Naval Academy came less than a week after the 50th anniversary of his plane being shot down over Vietnam and being taken a prisoner of war.
Former Virginia Republican Sen. John W. Warner, who served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee as well as secretary of the Navy, introduced his former colleague.
Warner said he first met McCain while serving as Navy secretary when the current senator came home after being a prisoner of war.
“Vietnam was on our mind, morning, noon and night,” Warner said, adding that the status of POWs like McCain had been on the top of the agenda of his intelligence briefings during the war.
“That’s where I first began to learn about John and his dedication to this country,” he said.
Warner called the invitation to participate in the ceremony Monday a “very important moment in my life.”
“You’re here because you want to defend our country and you want to defend freedom all over the world,” he said.
“America must remain strong militarily. America must protect its values,” Warner added, drawing applause — with the retired lawmaker pushing for more. “Come on, you can do better than that.”
That McCain’s appearance came just as Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had finished testifying on the Trump administration’s views regarding authorizations for use of military force, there was an unavoidable reality.
Just as McCain had gone to Vietnam after graduating from this place, the young men and women listening to and asking questions of the Arizona senator on Monday night will be the ones fighting the nation’s current wars and next war — wherever they may be.
The speech came almost 60 years since the senator was a midshipman himself.
As he often does, McCain made light of his mediocre academic performance. But he spoke candidly about the lessons of his time at the academy, as well as what he learned after receiving his commission.
“I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I wanted to shoot down airplanes,” McCain said. “I didn’t give a s--- what else I wanted to be.”
“When you go to a squadron, and you’re 16 pilots and 12 airplanes, you get responsibilities. You get responsibilities for the men and women who are in your squadron,” McCain said.
His address the Brigade of Midshipmen marked his first appearance on campus since 2012, and perhaps his last.
Of all the critical statements issued about Monday’s Helsinki happenings, the one by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain perhaps stood out the most, as the Arizona Republican accused President Donald Trump of making a “tragic mistake” in his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the joint press conference that followed.
The Republican pulled no punches in his latest verbal fisticuffs with the president, issuing a lengthy statement from Arizona about what may he thinks may be incalculable damage to U.S. foreign policy.
McCain’s absence from the Capitol has been obvious throughout his battle with brain cancer, but no more so than during debates over the relationship between the United States and Russia, as well as between the U.S. and NATO allies.
The full statement from McCain appears below:
Watch: Next to Putin, Trump Defies Own Intel Agendcies on Evidence of Russian Election Interference