Sens. John McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse doubled down on their bipartisan effort encouraging the U.S. Supreme Court to create a new standard for determining the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering.
PHILADELPHIA — An emotional Sen. John McCain on Monday leveled a blistering attack on what he called the “half-baked, spurious nationalism” that seems to have inspired President Trump’s administration to retreat from the world stage.
In a speech to accept the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal, McCain, R-Ariz., emphasized that the United States is “a land made of ideals, not blood and soil,” a rebuke to the Nazi slogan about bloodlines and territory chanted in August by White supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville, Va.
An at-times raspy-sounding McCain drew applause and cheers at the Philadelphia event when he said:
“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.”
McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman who is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, did not mention the name of Trump, with whom he has publicly feuded on and off for more than two years.
But it was clear that he was talking about the Trump White House, which has taken an “America First” stance toward international affairs.
Trump was criticized for his response to this summer’s Charlottesville violence, which included the death of a woman who was hit by a vehicle deliberately driven into a crowd of counterprotesters. Trump said “both sides” were to blame.
McCain emphasized the need for the United States to preserve its ideals at home and “champion” them abroad.
“We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did,” McCain said. “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,” he added.
The National Constitution Center said it awarded its Liberty Medal to McCain, a former prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, “for his lifetime of sacrifice and service.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, in his role as chairman of the center, bestowed the medal on McCain.
Biden and McCain have long earned criticism for crossing the political aisle to join arms.
In the most heated of debates, sometimes even between the two senators themselves, the men found common ground to make America better.
The former vice president even believed McCain should have won the Republican nomination for president in 2000, much to the chagrin of his delegation.
“From my perspective, it all pointed in that direction from the very beginning,” Biden said.
Each year, the Liberty Medal is awarded to men and women “of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over,” according to the organization. Previous recipients include Nelson Mandela, Sandra Day O’Connor and Colin Powell.
Those gathered Monday night on Independence Mall outside the Constitution Center, considered McCain a worthy addition to that list.
“I am the luckiest guy on earth,” McCain said. “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,” he said. “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.”
The Arizona senator has received considerable attention this year both for his willingness as a Republican to defy the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare and for his cancer diagnosis announced this summer.
The 81-year-old announced in July that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor — the same type of cancer that took Biden’s son, Beau.
He’s been receiving radiation and chemotherapy treatment at the National Institutes of Health since the Senate began its summer recess, and has kept a working schedule.
Biden said McCain’s drive to continue serving the country is an example to all Americans.
“To paraphrase Hemingway, when we grow stronger and all our broken parts, John, you were broken many times, physically and otherwise, and you’ve always grown stronger,” Biden said. “But what you don’t really understand in my humble opinion is how much courage you give the rest of us in looking at you. It matters.”
McCain became a focal point when he took a stand against efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, efforts that former president Barack Obama and Biden championed.
Last month, McCain voted no to the Graham-Cassidy proposal, which would have kept much of the Obamacare tax structure in place, but given back money to states in the form of block grants, allowing them to design their own health care systems.
“I cannot in good conscience vote for the Graham-Cassidy proposal. I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats, and have not yet really tried,” McCain said in a statement at the time. “Nor could I support it without knowing how much it will cost, how it will affect insurance premiums, and how many people will be helped or hurt by it.”
These efforts and the belief in standing up for the liberty of all people are what leaders throughout the country voiced again and again about McCain Monday night.
Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz stressed that it is easy to recall stories of great men, but noted that it is “much harder to follow in the footsteps of great men.”
“You, Senator McCain, are a founding father of our time,” he said.
McCain joined the Navy in 1958 after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. He rose to be a captain during his 22 years of service, working as a pilot in the Caribbean during the Cuban Missile Crisis and later conducting targeted air strikes in North Vietnam.
On October 26, 1967, his plane was shot down over Hanoi during a bombing mission. McCain was captured and spent years in a prisoner of war camp, where he was tortured by his captors.
Despite the opportunity for early release, McCain refused until all of his fellow soldiers were freed, prompting a four-day beating that McCain struggled to survive. The senator has received 17 military awards and decorations, including the Silver Star, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star, for his heroism.
The year after his return, his political career began in 1982, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for two terms before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1986. He has been in the Senate since, winning his re-election five times, as well as making two runs for president in 2000 and 2008.
It’s was during this time his lifelong friendship with Biden grew deeper.
“He says he carried my bags, but he never carried my bags,” Biden said to laughs in the crowd. “He was supposed to carry my bags, but he never carried my bags.”
McCain handed it right back during his remarks, noting that he did in fact carry Biden’s luggage — part of the duties taken on by the Navy’s liaison officer to the Senate.
“I’ve resented it ever since,” he said with a smile, before adding: “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 has meant a lot to me.”
Contributing: Scott Goss, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal. Follow Dan Nowicki and Brittany Horn on Twitter: @dannowicki and @brittanyhorn
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