Liberty Medal 2017: Remarks from John McCain and Joe Biden

John McCain

Thank you. Thank you, Joe, my old, dear friend. Thank you, Joe, my old dear friend for those mostly undeserved kind words. Vice President Biden and I have known each other for a lot of years now, more than forty, if you’re counting.

We knew each other back when we were young and handsome and smarter than everyone else but were too modest to say so.

Joe was already a Senator, and I was the Navy’s Liaison to the Senate. My duties included, as he mentioned earlier, escorting senate delegations on overseas trips, and in that capacity, I supervised the delegation’s luggage, which could require – now and again – when no one of lower rank was available for the job – that I carry someone else’s bag. Once or twice that turned out to be the young senator from Delaware. I’ve resented it ever since.

Joe has heard me joke about that before. I hope he has heard, too, my profession of gratitude for his friendship and love these many years. It’s meant a lot to me. We served in the Senate together for over twenty years, during some eventful times, as we passed from young men to the fossils who appear before you this evening.

We didn’t always agree on the issues. We often argued – sometimes passionately. But we believed in each other’s patriotism and the sincerity of each other’s convictions. We believed in the institution we were privileged to serve in.

We believed in our mutual responsibility to help make the place work and to cooperate in finding solutions to our country’s problems. We believed in our country and in our country’s indispensability to international peace and stability, and to the progress of humanity.

And through it all, whether we argued or agreed, Joe was good company. You all know he is good company. So thank you, old friend, for your company and your service to America.

Thank you, too, to the National Constitution Center, and everyone associated with it for this award.

Thank you for that video and for the all too generous compliments paid to me this evening. I’m aware of the prestigious company the Liberty Medal places me in. I’m humbled by it, and I’ll try my best not to prove too unworthy of it.

Some years ago, I was present at an event where an earlier Liberty Medal recipient spoke about America’s values and the sacrifices made for them. It was 1991, and I was attending the ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The World War II veteran, estimable patriot and good man, President George Herbert Walker Bush, gave a moving speech at the USS Arizona memorial. I remember it very well. His voice was thick with emotion as he neared the end of his address.

I imagine he was thinking not only of the brave Americans who lost their lives on December 7, 1941, but of the friends he had served with and lost in the Pacific where he had been the Navy’s youngest aviator.

“Look at the water here, clear and quiet …” he directed, “One day, what now seems another lifetime, it wrapped its arms around the finest sons any nation could ever have, and it carried them to a better world.”

He could barely get out the last line, “May God bless them, and may God bless America, the most wondrous nation on earth.”

The most wondrous land on earth, indeed. I’ve had the good fortune to spend sixty years in service to this wondrous land. It’s 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 over with adventures, with good company, and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America. And I am so grateful.

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 with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future. 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.

We are blessed, and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn. The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history.

This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another better world. And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7, 1941.

To fear the world we have organized and led the 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 live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We’ve done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did.

We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

I’m the luckiest guy on earth. I have served America’s cause – the cause of our security and the security of our friends, the cause of freedom and equal justice – all my adult life. I haven’t always served it well. I haven’t even always appreciated what I was serving.

But among the few compensations of old age is the acuity of hindsight. I see now that I was part of something important that drew me along in its wake even when I was diverted by other interests. I was, knowingly or not, along for the ride as America made the future better than the past.

And I have enjoyed it, every single day of it, the good ones and the not so good ones. I’ve been inspired by the service of better patriots than me. I’ve seen Americans make sacrifices for our country and her causes and for people who were strangers to them but for our common humanity, sacrifices that were much harder than the service asked of me.

And I’ve seen the good they’ve done, the lives they freed from tyranny and injustice, the hope they encouraged, the dreams they made achievable. 

May God bless them. May God bless America, and give us the strength and wisdom, the generosity and compassion, to do our duty for this wondrous land, and for the world that counts on us.

With all its suffering and danger, the world still looks to the example and leadership of America to become another, better place. What greater cause could anyone ever serve?

Thank you again for this honor. I’ll treasure it.

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Joe Biden

Thank you very much. I’m assuming you’re standing because you’re cold and you like to stretch. Howard Schultz is going to come up and repeat his speech. Howard that was really good for real.

Ladies and gentlemen I’m deeply honored to be here tonight as a part of the night. Serving this year as the Chair of the National Constitution Center Board of Trustees has afforded me many privileges but none greater than the opportunity to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary exemplary service to our nation of my dear friend.

My mom, and I met John’s mom, and he knew my mom. My mom had an expression from the time I was a kid. She said, “Joey, look at me. Look in my eyes.” And I’m not exaggerating my word as a Biden.  She said, “Look at me…”  “Remember you are defined by your courage and you’re redeemed by your loyalty.” That was her code. You are defined by your courage and you’re redeemed by your loyalty.

Courage and loyalty. I can think of no better description of the man we’re honoring tonight, my friend John McCain. As I said, my mom knew John and respected him deeply. She said, which I never told John, she was one of five children from Scranton – four brothers all served in the military, all in World War II. Her number two brother, and Bobby Casey knows this because we lived only several blocks from one another in Greenwich, his dad and I.

Her number two brother is Ambrose Finnegan who still is remembered in Scranton as a leader. He was shot down and his body was never found in Papua New Guinea. And she used to talk about every time something came up about John how he reminded her of her brother Ambrose.

She thought Ambrose, and she knew John, was the embodiment of courage and loyalty. We all know John’s story. You’ve heard it tonight, we’ve seen it tonight, you know about his grandparents, his father, how he was called to duty in war time, his incredible heroism.

You know, on October 26, 1967, fifty years ago this month when his plane was shot down, and damn it’s hard to remember John, fifty years, God almighty. I was a mere child. I think I was in third grade, I don’t remember for sure.

But you know the infamous Hanoi Hilton. You know, as you know and you’ve heard time and again, and John knows and still bears the scars of the brutal beatings and the damage done to him.

After about eight months you also know about the offer of release. I have had the opportunity as Vice President to sit on the stage of the President and confer a number of Medals of Honor. I’m sure it’s occurred but I cannot think of anyone that I’m aware of, I’m sure it’s occurred, who given the opportunity after knowing, not having to guess Mister Meir...

Knowing what it meant to stay in that prison, not having to be threatened and wonder what was coming. Knowing what would happen – given the opportunity to leave no matter what the code was.

Imagine. I want you to think about it. Imagine it in real terms, again, not having to wonder what he would face by refusing to leave. Knowing the excruciating pain and isolation – and he stayed.

He stayed. That meant he spent almost five more years in that hellhole of captivity. Inhumane conditions, 1,967 days. 1,967 days. You’ve all had pain, you’ve all had suffering, we’ve all had it in our lives personally in our families.

And you know how sometimes just getting up one day at a time, just putting one foot in front of the other and facing whatever that pain, mental or physical. As I said, I’ve been privileged to meet a fair number of heroes in my life.

Like John I’ve been in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq over thirty-five times. I’ve had the honor of putting silver stars on people in the file up in the Upper Coroner Valley. I’ve seen these kids but I don’t ever remember, I don’t ever remember seeing someone who has kept his wits and senses about him.

I remember when you were released John, we all do, but I remember I was a Senator only four months. It was March 14th, 1973 and I remember getting off that plane pal. I didn’t know you but I remember that salute we saw here tonight.

I remember how you were greeted and how you greeted, and how you made no distinction between you and all the rest of your fellow POW’s at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Folks seeing that handsome young flyer who pushed beyond the bounds of human endurance come out the other side still standing, still proud.  As my mother would say, “Still unbowed.” I thought to myself my God.

And I remember talking with my friend Ted Koffman, who you ended up serving with, he was my chief of staff, a fine guy.  I remember us sitting watching and saying someday I want to meet that guy, never expecting to be able to do it. You know we have an expression in the Senate, you have to excuse the point of personal privilege.

I realize that I’m talking about is personal but remarkably John chose to remain in the Navy. He had an awful lot of other opportunities but he chosen a life of service. And to him duty always dictated what to do – and he stayed.

You can imagine my surprise when in 1977 I did meet Captain John McCain, Senate Liaison Officer of the Naval Legislative office. I was a young, by far the youngest member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  And I got an opportunity to travel all over the world, and like John I’ve met every major world leader without exception since 1976.

In the beginning one of the most consequential days of my career, and we have all looked back on our careers and thing of those things and moments that had an impact on how your career moved forward.

I not only got to work with John McCain, I got to know him. I got to know an awful lot about him and he got to know an awful lot about me. We traveled hundreds of thousands of miles together. We got to know each other’s families.

Sitting on my lawn in Wilmington having a picnic with his family when he was still in the Navy. My sons, Beau Biden, Army. Purple Heart….excuse me, a bronze star, other medals he was awarded, looked at John from the time he was a high school kid with nothing but absolute raw admiration.

My son Hunter got to know John personally. They got to talk to him. They took the measure of the man and they got to learn from him. They really cared about you John, and I know you know that.

John and I would travel the world together. As I said, he jokes. He said he carried my bags. The son of a gun never carried my bags. He was supposed to carry my bags damn it, but he never carried my bags.

He was the young liaison officer, I was the young senator. Whether we were going to Germany or China whenever I went with notable exceptions I asked John to come with me. And on many of those so-called codel congressional delegations back in the days when we liked each other and talked to each other we used to travel together, Democrat and Republican and our spouses.

And many of those Jill was along with me as well. She got to know and love John as well, and I think he loves her too. Traveling together with our wives was a tradition we kept up when John was later elected to the United States Senate himself.

I never saw him just as a liaison officer. I pulled him in, I sought his advice. I’d be meeting with world leaders and I’d ask John before I went in, “What do you think John? This is what I’m going to say. You think it makes sense John? This is what I’m thinking.” 

He not only became a friend he became an advisor. A little later on I think maybe I served the same role for John when he was thinking about running. We talked for hours about the state of the world, about specific assignments, about our families, about what we wanted to do with our lives.

I learned a hell of a lot about this man. And then we’d talk about what we’re going to do. How we were thinking about what we’re going to do, and John would talk about maybe he’s going to go back to Arizona - go to Arizona and get involved in politics.

And to the chagrin of some of my Democratic friends I strongly encouraged John to do it because I knew, I knew when he ran for the House it didn’t surprise me at all that he won.

It didn’t surprise me when he ran for the Senate and won, it just pleased me because we got to serve together even though that same period of time, as John said, a lot of the Khmer Rouge was elected from the House and came over. That’s another story.

But it didn’t surprise me when he became leader of his party. It didn’t surprise me when he sought out the nomination for President because I saw from the beginning he had that capacity.

I thought then in 2000 he should have been the nominee. From my perspective it all pointed in that direction from the very beginning. John will remember I called him after a couple vicious attacks on him in South Carolina, and I offered to help him.

I said, “John, were do you want me? Pick the town, the city, and the place and I’ll testify to your character.” And in classic John he said, “Joe, I think that’d hurt me more than it would help but thanks.”  Remember that John?

And boy was my team angry as hell with me because I made it known I was prepared to do it. But I’ll tell you what did surprise me. I didn’t expect, I didn’t expect that, and it caused me some consternation, although I was proud to be picked as Vice President and serve with President Obama, I didn’t expect that someday John and I would be on opposing tickets in 2008.

But never once, never once did I ever say anything that wasn’t positive about John during that campaign. I never made any secret about John being my friend, although I didn’t talk about it too much, not as a joke, because it would have hurt him.

Not a joke. John do you remember? John and I used to do debates in the 90’s. We’d go over and sit with one another, literally sit next to each other on either Democratic or Republican side of the floor.

And I knew something had changed John, and so did you coincidentally, and Bobby you won’t remember this and neither you nor my colleague from Delaware would know this, but we both got in to our caucuses and were chastised by the leadership of both our caucus’s - why were we talking with one another and sitting with one another showing such friendship in the middle of debates.

This was after the Gingrich Revolution in the 90’s. They didn’t want us sitting together, that’s when things began to change, not between John and me, but things began to change. But for John it was always duty, honor, country.  That’s John.

John understands what it means to sacrifice for what you believe in. To put the greater good ahead of personal feelings. President Kennedy said, “Moral courage in politics is a rare commodity than courage on the battlefield.”

John was showing the moral courage. He’s a man who was terrorized, victimized, abused for five and a half years. And then as a U.S Senator, as it’s pointed out, he joined John Kerry in normalizing relationships with Vietnam.

Always country first. Always country first. You know here’s what John said in 1995, he said, “We have looked back in anger at Vietnam for too long. I…” John saying, “I cannot allow whatever resentment I incurred during my time in Vietnam to hold me from doing what is clearly my duty.”

Everybody talks about these virtues but this is what the guy did. This is not only what he said. Duty. Duty. Duty. It’s the marrow running through that solid steel spine of this guy who it makes him such a formidable opponent and such a fierce friend.

John and I have been with one another and together, and we’ve been against one another. Now as you all observed neither one of us have a temper. Neither one of us ever lose our cool. But boy, oh boy.

But as I’ve said, and John knows even after our toughest fights, John, saying to me, call me saying, “You know Biden should be taken off the ticket.” And then he’d call me to say, “I didn’t really mean that. I don’t know what the hell made me say that.”

I’ve said this before because John and I have been given several awards together lately about bipartisanship, and we don’t understand why you should get an award for bipartisanship by the way.

But I said this publicly before, I know if I called John in the middle of the night, even after the most bitter debate we could have and said, “John I’m at 7th and Vine in St. Louis. I can’t explain why but I need you to come now for me.”

He’d get in the plane and he’d go. I guarantee you - and so would I for him. 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.

The part we didn’t talk about, and I’m not going to take your time tonight, but I want to just state it for the record, John’s a man of significant intellect, deep conviction, and unmatched character.

And if you allow me to point a personal privilege again, we used to say in the Senate, and I want to say John how much your example of service and duty, courage and loyalty inspired my Beau in his decision as an Army National Guard Captain, later Major, to give up his Attorney General seat, turned it over to Republican to get permission to be able to go to Iraq for a year because his unit was going.

John, when he received his cancer diagnosis he also found strength in the courage you’ve demonstrated throughout your whole life. And I’m sure he’d not been surprised at all that after your diagnosis you took to the Senate floor to remind us all – all of us who would choose to hold office, Democrats and Republicans alike, what our responsibility is first to the nation.

Responsibility extends beyond ourselves, our parties. You once again felt that clarion call to duty John. You extended it and turned everyone around you. You said, “What greater cause could we hope to serve then helping America be strong, aspiring, international beacon of liberty, and a defender of the dignity of all human beings, and the right to freedom and justice. What greater cause?”

You know that’s what it’s always been for four decades. What greater cause? I personally benefit from having John McCain both as a confidant, councilman, and a friend. For even longer our nation has benefitted from John’s selflessness and unwavering service.

So now John, to paraphrase Hemingway, was spoken to earlier, “We grow stronger in all our broken parts.” John, you’ve been broken many times physically and otherwise, and you’ve always grown stronger.

But what you don’t really understand, in my humble opinion, is how much courage you give the rest of us looking at you. It matters. So now John, with your powerful words ringing in our ears and your example before us, a life of tireless work to quote secure the blessings of liberty to the people the world over.

It is my great pleasure to present you with the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal.

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