The remarks came during a ceremony that veered from humorous to serious as the Arizona Republican was awarded the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal, to recognize those “who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.”
Previous recipients have ranged from the Dalai Lama to Sandra Day O’Connor and from Muhammad Ali to Hillary Clinton.
McCain’s award capped six decades of public service, but it also followed several months of impassioned pleas from the senator, who was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of brain cancer this summer, for greater cooperation and less partisanship in Washington.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat who served for years in the Senate with McCain, presented the award during an evening in which McCain was praised by lawmakers ranging from former President George W. Bush to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer.
“John and I have been given several awards together lately about bipartisanship – and we don’t understand why we should get an award for bipartisanship,” Biden said. “We’ve always been willing, when we thought the other guy was right, to cross the aisle and lock arms. It’s good for the country.”
Biden said that for McCain, whom he called his “dear friend, adviser and confidant,” it was always about “duty, honor and country.”
But McCain Monday called himself “the luckiest guy on Earth” for having been able to serve the nation for more than 60 years, first in the Navy and then in Congress. And he rhapsodized about the privilege of living in the “land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream,” his voice breaking several times during his speech.
McCain said U.S. ideals and leadership have created a new international order that has “liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history.” But he warned that that U.S. “has a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t” continue to lead, but instead withdraw from the world stage.
“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,” McCain said, “is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
In an apparent reference to white supremacists who marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, this summer chanting “blood and soil,” McCain said the U.S. is “a land made of ideals, not blood and soil.”
In addition to the dignitaries on stage, those in the audience at the National Constitution Center event included a high school classmate of McCain’s. Bruce Rinehart said he never suspected McCain would achieve the successes he has, but that the man is little changed from the boy he knew in high school in Alexandria, Virginia.
“He very much marched to … his own drum,” Rinehart said before the ceremony. “He had John McCain’s way of doing things.”
Rinehart said he believes McCain “is going to be remembered for doing the right thing, you know, no one can push him around – I could have told you that 65 years ago.”
Speakers recounted not only McCain’s political history, but the story of the years he spent as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam where he suffered years of torture rather than be released early, as the son and grandson of Navy admirals, a move that would likely have been used in Vietnamese propaganda.
“He was a man who was terrorized, victimized and abused for five-and-a-half years,” Biden said. “And then as U.S. senator, as was pointed out, he joined with (former Vietnam veteran and Massachusetts Democratic Sen.) John Kerry in normalizing relations with Vietnam.”
Biden said his son, Beau, who died of cancer in 2015, was inspired by McCain in his military service and beyond.
“When he received his cancer diagnosis he also found strength in the courage you have demonstrated throughout your whole life,” Biden said to McCain. “And I’m sure he would have not been surprised at all that after your diagnosis you took to the Senate floor to remind us all … what our responsibility is – first to the nation – a responsibility that extends beyond ourselves and our parties.”