Remarks: Joe Biden

On October 16, 2017, former Vice President Joe Biden awarded the 2017 Liberty Medal to Senator John McCain. Here are his prepared remarks:

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, 2017 Liberty Medal. 

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