Former President Barack Obama took aim at the “petty” nature of current American politics during his eulogy honoring the late Sen. John McCain on Saturday.
“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insults and phony controversies and manufactured outrage,” Obama said. “It is a politics that pretends to be brave, and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger and better than that.”
Obama, who ran against McCain for the presidency in 2008, focused heavily on how McCain was able to rise above the partisan fray and work with Republicans and Democrats alike. His remarks didn’t specifically call out President Trump, but they did criticize a culture of insulting tweets and bombastic controversies that the president has played a role in cultivating.
Obama also described McCain as a model of how politics could be. “[John] understood that if we get in the habit of bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our democracy will not work,” he said. “That is why he was willing to buck his own party at times, occasionally work across the aisle on campaign finance reform and immigration reform. That is why he championed a free and independent press as vital to our democratic debates.”
Trump was not invited to the service by the McCains, though his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner were in attendance.
Trump is known for frequently bashing McCain in the past, going so far as to insult his service as a prisoner of war. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said in 2015. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” It’s a feud that the president appeared to continue even after McCain’s death last weekend.
Obama, along with former President George W. Bush and Meghan McCain, was among those who offered eulogies for the legendary Republican lawmaker at his memorial service at the National Cathedral.
“That is perhaps how we honor him best, by recognizing that there are some things bigger than party or ambition, or money, or fame, or power,” Obama said.
A rush transcript of Obama’s full eulogy follows.
To John’s beloved family, Mrs. McCain, Cindy, and the McCain children, President Bush, President and Secretary Clinton, Vice President Biden, Vice President and Mrs. Cheney, Vice President Gore, and as John would say, my friends, we come to celebrate an extraordinary man. A warrior. 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 made this country better. So, for someone like John to ask you while he was 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 admit sadness and also a certain surprise, but after our conversation ended, I realized how well it captured some of John’s essential qualities.
To start with, John like to being unpredictable. Even a little contrarian. He had no idea of a prepackaged Senate, and he did not want a prepackaged funeral either. He had been to hell and back, yet somehow never lost his energy, optimism, or zest for life. Cancer were not scare him, and to would maintain that buoyant spirit to the very end, too stubborn to sit still, opinionated as ever, fiercely devoted to his friends, and most of all to his family.
It showed his irreverence, sense of humor, a little bit of mischievous streak, otherwise, what other way to get a laugh than to 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 were of different generations. I came from a broken home and never knew my father. John was the son of one of America’s most distinguished military families. I had a reputation for keeping cool. John, not so much.
We were standard bearers of a different American political decisions, and John never hesitated to tell me throughout my presidency when I was screwing up, which by his calculation, was once a day. But for all of 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, that is understandable. What faster way to distinguish yourself when you are 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. And for John, that meant answering the highest of calls, 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, when day after day, year after year, that iron was tempered into steel.
It brings to mind something that Hemingway wrote in the 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 is why when John spoke of virtues like service and duty, it did not ring hollow. They were not just words to him, it was a truth that he had lived and for which he was prepared to die. And, if 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. Now, 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. That some values transcend parties. He considered a 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 and norms are what binds us together and give shape to our life. Even when we disagree, especially when we disagree.
John believed in honest argument and hearing other 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 is why he was willing to buck his own party at times, occasionally work across the aisle on campaign finance reform and immigration reform. That is why he championed a free and independent press as vital to our democratic debates. And the fact that it earned him some good coverage did not 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 bloodline, 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, and thou by our creator, certain inalienable rights.
It has been mentioned today, and we have seen footage this week of John pushing back against supporters who challenged my patriotism during the 2008 campaign. I was grateful, but I was not surprised. As Joe Lieberman said, it was John’s instinct. I never saw John treat anyone differently because of their race or religion, or gender. And I am certain 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 who loved 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 indispensable nation, believing that the great power and great blessings comes great responsibility. That burden is worn most heavily by our men and women in uniform. Servicemembers like Doug, Jimmy, and Jack, who follow their father’s footsteps, as well as the families who served 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 abilities 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 who go into public service, he did have an ego. Like all of us, there was no doubt 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. 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 experience it firsthand, mind you. But 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 and his blind spots, and he knew how to laugh at himself, and that self-awareness made him all the more compelling.
We did not advertise it, but every so often over the course of my presidency, John would come over to the White House and we would just sit and talk in the Oval Office, just the two of us, and we would talk about policy, family, and we would talk about the state of our politics, and our disagreements did not 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 locked with each other, and we laughed and learned from each other.
We never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other man’s 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 source of those ideals here at home, and to 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.
And more than once during his career, John drew comparisons to Teddy Roosevelt. I am sure it has been noted that Roosevelt’s man in the arena oration seems tailored to John. Most of you know it. Roosevelt speaks of those who strive, when they want to do great things, that sometimes come up short, but always relish the 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? To be 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 bombast and insults and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It is a politics that pretends to be brave, and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger and 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 ever come can depend on what you do today. What other way to honor John McCain’s life of service than to, 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. In fact, it is demanded of all of us as citizens of this great republic.
That is 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 there are some things there 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.