Rah-rah speeches by politicians rarely make good fodder for opinion columns. Journalists hear these talks often, become jaded by just another guy using grandiose language.
Today is an exception. A message delivered last week by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was full of platitudes and colorful, but it was also very much to the point. Former President George W. Bush presented a similar message a few days later.
“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil,” McCain said. “We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champions abroad.”
The occasion was presentation of the Liberty Medal to McCain, whose 36-year tenure in Congress is now threatened by both age and a malignancy in his brain. The medal is the highest honor of the National Constitution Center, which holds a charter to celebrate the values of freedom. Previous recipients have included Colin Powell, Sandra Day O’Connor and Nelson Mandela.
“I’m aware of the prestigious company the Liberty Medal places me in,” McCain said. “I’m humbled by it, and I will try my best not to prove too unworthy of it.”
McCain’s ties to Mississippi are well-known and go back a long way. As the Republican nominee for president in 2008, he debated Democratic nominee Barack Obama onstage at the University of Mississippi. His great-great-grandfather, William Alexander McCain, owned Waverly Plantation in Teoc from 1851 until his death in Memphis from typhoid in 1864. At the time, Pvt. McCain was a Union POW. After the Civil War, freed slaves from Teoc, in Carroll County, adopted the McCain surname and became organizers of schools for black children in the 1880s and local civil rights leaders in the 1960s.
The McCain family is steeped in military tradition. His father and grandfather were Navy admirals and he, despite finishing at the bottom of his Naval Academy class, became a Navy pilot. He was shot down in 1967 in Vietnam and tortured and held, like his great-great-grandfather, as a POW. When his father was named commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, McCain was offered release from the Hanoi Hilton as a propaganda move. McCain famously turned down his personal freedom unless all his fellow captives were released, too.
That didn’t spare him from the ridicule of our president who, when a candidate, was dismissive of his fellow Republican and said McCain became a hero by being captured. “I like people who weren’t captured,” Donald Trump said.
There have been snippets and snarls since, but McCain dismissed them as fairly standard in politics.
In their speeches, Bush not McCain mentioned President Trump. Instead, McCain elaborated on the story of America. His setup went like this:
“I’ve had the good fortune to spend 60 years in service to this wondrous land. It has not been perfect service, to be sure, and there were probably times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help. But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege as best I can, and I’ve been repaid a thousand times. ...
“What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed.
“We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, ... the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, the land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.”
And the parting shot:
“To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.
“We will not thrive in a world where our ideals and leadership are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”
Former presidents Obama and Bill Clinton tweeted their congratulations.
President Trump threatened revenge.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.