Two Men of Principles — Barack Obama and John McCain

Very rarely do I post anything over 1,200 words, and typically I try to stay around the 800-word mark.  I tried to find parts of this eulogy to cut out, to shorten it, but in the end, every word seemed relevant.  And so, in it’s entirety, this is the poignant eulogy given earlier today by President Barack Obama for Senator John McCain:

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 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. He made us better presidents just as he made the senate better, just as he makes this country better.

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. 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, 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. what better way to get a last laugh than 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 stein 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, what’s 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. 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. And it brings to mind something that Hemingway wrote, a 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 valor 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?

Much has been said this week about what a maverick John was. 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. 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. Give shape and order to our common life. Even when we disagree. Especially when we disagree.

John believed in honest argument and hearing our 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 it earned him 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 blood line, not on what we look like, what our last names are, 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, seen footage this week, John pushing back against supporters that 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. 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 that 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 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, Jack who followed their father’s footsteps, as well as families that 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 insistence on the god-given dignity of every human being.

Of course John was the first to tell us he was not perfect. Like all of us that 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 is no secret, it has 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, 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. We would 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 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 at home and do 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. I am sure it has been noted that Roosevelt’s men in the arena 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, 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 bombastic manufactured outrage, it’s 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 the 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.

17 thoughts on “Two Men of Principles — Barack Obama and John McCain

  1. What a wonderful speaker Barack Obama is , these great orators move us , perhaps sometimes too far , and we are swept up in the words and emotion of the moment.
    This outpouring reminds me of Winston Churchill who also knew how to stir the crowds. Dare I say it’s a bit nationalistic for me a bit to King and country , as if we western nations led the ignorant rest of the world shedding light where the darkness of ignorance reigned. It’s not a reading of human history I like too much. Of course such a reading might well be enjoyed by those with leanings towards Mr Trump and his endeavours to make America great again — notice great again everyone knows she was already great in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Listening to not only Obama, but also George W Bush and Joe Biden, I was reminded what statesmanship is. What dignified and professional are. Something we haven’t seen for a while in these parts.

      Like you, I am not fond of the nationalistic ideology, for I find it to be arrogant and exclusive. A nation may do some things right and prosper, but the people ARE the nation, and the people are no better than people in any other nation. The U.S. has done some things right in the past, but I can name a bucket-load of things we’ve done wrong, too. Great? It’s all in the definition. By my definition, the U.S. may be great when we treat ALL people equally and without prejudice. When we take care of our poor, our sick and our disabled. When we remember that diversity makes us better, and we should not fear it. Others, I am certain, would define greatness differently.


  2. Jill, while Meghan McCain and the former Presidents, Senator and Secretary of State were highlighting honor, service, collaboration, civil debate and abiding by rules of decorum, the “uninvited man” was bullying Canada and Congress and lying yet again about the veracity of NAFTA. The “uninvited man” was claiming an agreement that needs improvement and update as a disaster and Canada has treated us so poorly. Really? Then, the “uninvited man” told Congress to not get in the way of his agreements.

    The last week of honoring McCain culminating in yesterday’s service made active politicians in the room and the uninvited man look small. The criticism is well-earned. Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    • It certainly is well-earned! I truly believe that the only reason he was so miffed at not being invited is that it robbed him of the opportunity to decline, and to spew more of his hateful rhetoric with his declination. So, instead, he tweeted criticism of everyone else. I am becoming increasingly concerned that he is going to cause serious damage to our relationship with our northern neighbors. Trudeau is a patient man, but we all have our limits.


      • Jill, I believe he already has damaged more than a few relationships. Unfortunately, the US is the lone constant in this trade mess. Our partners will (and are) seek(ing) other venues for sales and supplies. Unless Congress intervenes, the next President will have to go to these countries to win back business. Per economist David Smick who worked for the best (Clinton) and third best (Reagan) job creators, he said both Presidents loved global trade agreements. That is telling. Keith

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The only thing that surpasses reading Obama’s eulogy was hearing him give it today. He remains a gifted orator. I especially liked that he referenced McCain’s comparison to Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech, part of a speech given in 1910 in France. It does describe John McCain well. It is of interest to note that Nixon used it at his highest moment in 1968 and his lowest moment in 1974. George W. Bush’s eulogy was also well delivered and laudatory. Meghan McCain brought me to tears over and over. Rest well John McCain, you served your country well and will be remembered forever. Thank-you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Jill,

    President Obama’s voice was definitely channeling Sen. McCain from his casket. I loved the ending, “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 the 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.’

    I wonder if any of those wards landed on those in the audience who needed to hear them? We’ll see.

    I noticed that Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke a very few words from the bible on something about a friend laying down his life for another. That sounded like words he needed to consider.

    Hugs, Gronda

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was moved to tears by his words. Obama has always been such a great speaker, and today was no exception. As to whether any who needed to hear them, heard and understood … I am trying not to be cynical, so I will just say that we can hope. I wonder, though, for there is such hatred toward Obama by the conservatives.

      Lindsey Graham … what a disappointment in the way he treated the man who he claims was his best friend for decades. Joe Biden gave a much nicer tribute. Graham is, I think, a sellout.

      Men like McCain, Ted Kennedy, and Barack Obama … I don’t see any like them in government today. Heck, even GW Bush looks really good compared to what I see today!


      Liked by 1 person

  5. This was truly a great eulogy, Jill – thanks for reproducing it. All of us long for the days of sanity in Washington and in America’s interactions with the rest of the world. Meghan certainly put the boots to the trumps in her remarks.

    Liked by 2 people

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