John McCain was a rare breed. He was humble and passionate, determined and unyielding, a man deeply in love with his country and its promise. He was optimistic that tomorrow would be better than today and he was always grateful for the chance to serve a cause greater than himself.
I was privileged to have John as a colleague for eight years, to get to know him as a traveling companion and mentor, and in recent years, to count him as a friend. We didn’t always or even often agree on a wide range of policy issues, but when it came to standing up for America’s values, I deeply admired him and followed his lead as best I could.
John was convinced that what makes America great and what has always made America great is its values and principles. He believed that what defines us apart from other powerful nations is that we’re willing to fight not just for our interests but for our values, for the things that make us a democracy: human rights, freedom of speech and religious expression, a free press, an independent judiciary, open and fair elections, and a deep commitment to human liberty.
John also challenged his colleagues to be our better selves, to put country above party, put down the tools of petty partisanship and work together to fashion better solutions to the problems of our day. I worked with John on many issues in recent years, but it was an honor to be his lead cosponsor on his last immigration reform bill earlier this year, which offered a bipartisan way forward for our long-broken immigration system.
Indeed, from immigration to health care, national security to foreign relations, John pushed us to act in ways more worthy of the Senate and its history as the “greatest deliberative body on Earth.”
I also had the honor of traveling with John, where I truly saw him at his best. Visiting a refugee camp in Jordan, where hundreds of Syrians had just arrived fleeing the butchery of Assad’s troops, he wept with compassion and promised to fight for them and their cause. On a visit to Afghanistan and Egypt, I witnessed how he could challenge foreign leaders and encourage our own troops in harm’s way with equal passion.
Just after President Trump’s inauguration last year, at a security conference in Halifax, Canada, I saw how he commanded respect from political and military leaders from across more than a dozen countries and I heard him reassure European allies and partners that we would keep our commitments, defend our shared values, and stand by their young democracies in the face of Russian aggression.
Finally, on an unforgettable trip to Vietnam last June, I got to visit the “Hanoi Hilton” with John and hear his description of the deprivations of his long captivity. Then, I saw the high regard the people and leaders of Vietnam have for him as a warrior and peacemaker, a statesman and a healer of the wounds of war.
Working with John, I admired him for all these things, but I also admired his ability to fight passionately without making things personal, for the kindness he showed my family, and for pushing me relentlessly to defend and explain my positions and votes.
Most importantly, John was genuinely humble. He didn’t have the false modesty of a popular politician. John had the kind of real humility of someone who knows he is flawed — as all of us are — and sets about being open and accountable for his shortcomings.
John also used his hardest personal experiences to make some of his most important contributions. Having himself survived imprisonment and torture at the hands of his Vietnamese captors, John could have easily returned home to serve out his time in the Navy and retire in comfort and honor. Instead, he continued his service to our nation, working tirelessly to champion the cause of those unjustly imprisoned around the world. Dissidents and activists who spoke up for freedom and against dictators knew no more dedicated friend than Senator McCain.
So how can we honor this man who loved and fought for freedom?
First, we should fight the dreaded, cruel disease that took him from us — as with Senator Ted Kennedy and our own Beau Biden, who was taken too soon —and discover and develop a cure for brain cancer.
We should rename the Senate office building where John McCain served in his honor and keep his memory alive for generations.
We should also strengthen and invest in national service. I can think of no better way to honor the spirit of service in which John lived his life than by making it possible for all young Americans to serve their country in some way – whether through military or civilian service – to develop their skills, learn about their nation, and earn tuition funds for college.
Lastly, we should continue John’s way of reaching across the aisle, listening to each other, working together, and pushing one another to be better.
I won’t soon meet another man like John McCain. I only hope to someday deserve the friendship he extended to a young and inexperienced Senator and to follow his example of humility, dedication, and passion in tirelessly serving the greatest nation on Earth and the best hope of freedom in our world.
Joe Biden, John’s close friend of forty years, said it best at his Phoenix memorial: John lived by a timeless code of honor, duty, and character, and “we shall not see his like again.”
Rest well, my friend. May God hold you in the palm of His hand.