McCain Addresses Boston College Convocation
"Thank you. I'm very grateful for the privilege of addressing you this evening, and participating in this great Boston College tradition. In gratitude for the opportunity, I will keep my prepared remarks brief so that I can spend the greater part of this time attempting to answer any questions, comments or insults you might have for me. I have found over the years that my audiences are rarely as impressed with my wisdom and eloquence as I hoped they would be. They prefer to question, interrogate or, with any luck, provoke me into revealing greater information about my views, purposes and mental acuity than I intended to disclose or, at least, salvage a little entertainment from the evening in the event my responses are not as thoughtful as my staff hoped they would be. So, with your indulgence I'll offer a few of my own thoughts on this convocation's theme -- your abiding commitment to a life well-lived, a life of genuine, moral and, I hope, public leadership -- before turning the floor over to you.
"Seventeen years ago, in the first days of the last days of the Soviet empire, a young Czech student stood before a million of his countrymen, while two hundred thousand Soviet troops still occupied his country, and, trembling with emotion, read a manifesto that declared a new day for the captive peoples of Eastern Europe. He began that new day with borrowed words when he proclaimed:
"'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'
"For all the terrible problems that still afflict humanity, for all the mistakes America has made in the past, and the imperfections we must still confess, I cannot imagine another nation's history will ever so profoundly affect the progress of the human race. That is not a boast, but an expression of faith in the American creed, and in the men and women who understood what history expected of us.
"Theodore Roosevelt is one of my political heroes. The "strenuous life" was his definition of Americanism, a celebration of America's pioneer ethos, the virtues that inspired our self-confidence, that bound us by sacred duty to suffer hardship and risk danger to protect the values of our civilization and impart them to humanity. "We cannot sit huddled within our borders," he warned, "and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond."
"His Americanism was not fidelity to a tribal identity. Nor was it limited to a sentimental attachment to our "amber waves of grain" or "purple mountains majesty." He exalted the morals and political values of a nation where the people are sovereign, recognizing not only the inherent justice of self-determination, that freedom empowered individuals to choose their own destiny, but that it empowers us to choose a common destiny. And for Roosevelt that common destiny surpassed material gain and self-interest. Our freedom and industry must aspire to more than acquisition and luxury. We must live out the true meaning of freedom, and "accept that we have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither."
"Some critics, in his day and ours, saw in Roosevelt's patriotism only flag-waving chauvinism, not all that dissimilar to Old World allegiances that incited one people to subjugate another and plunged whole continents into war. But they did not see the universality of the ideals that formed his creed.
"A few years ago, I read an account of an Irishman's attempt to make the first crossing of the Antarctic on foot. In August 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton placed an advertisement in a London newspaper.
"'MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS.'
"Twenty-eight men answered the ad and began a twenty-two month trial of wind, ice, snow and grim endurance. The deprivations these men suffered are unimaginable. They spent four months marooned on a desolate ice-covered island before they were rescued by Shackleton himself. They endured three months of polar darkness, and were forced to shoot their sled dogs for food. Their mission failed, but they recorded an epic of courage and honor that far surpassed the accomplishment that exceeded their grasp. When they returned to England, most of them immediately enlisted in World War I.
"Years later, Shackleton looked back on the character of his shipmates. He had had the privilege of witnessing a thousand acts of unselfish courage, and he understood the greater glory that they had achieved. "In memories we were rich," he wrote. "We had pierced the veneer of outside things."
"I thought when I read it that in that memorable phrase was the Roosevelt code. To pierce the veneer of outside things, to strive for something more ennobling than the luxuries that privilege and wealth have placed within easy reach. For the memories of such accomplishments are fleeting, attributable as they are to the fortunate circumstances of our birth and reflect little credit on our character or our nation's.
"We are not a perfect country. Prosperity and power might delude us into thinking we have achieved that distinction, but inequities and challenges unforeseen a mere generation ago command every good citizen's concern and labor. But what we have achieved in our brief history is irrefutable proof that a nation conceived in liberty will prove stronger and more enduring than any nation ordered to exalt the few at the expense of the many or made from a common race or culture or to preserve traditions that have no greater attribute than longevity.
"As blessed as we are, no nation complacent in its greatness can long sustain it. We are an unfinished nation. We must take our place in the enterprise of renewal, giving in our time our counsel, our labor and our passion to the enduring task of making our nation and this world a better place. We must prove again, as those who came before us proved, that a people free to act in their own interests will perceive their interests in an enlightened way, will live as one nation, in a kinship of ideals, and make of our power and wealth a civilization for the ages, a civilization in which all people share in the promise and responsibilities of freedom.
"We must represent to the world, even in perilous times, when we confront enemies who share none of our values, who scorn the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that ennoble our history, we must always show the world that those values are dearer to us than anything. They are dearer to us than life itself. We need not and we must not sacrifice our values in this war against terrorism. We cannot win the war if we do, and we will lose something far more precious, our political soul. That is why, I believe, that even though captured al Qaeda members would never accord us any protection of our rights -- on the contrary, they despise all human rights -- even though they are, in fact, evil, we must adhere in our treatment of them to the standards of our values, not theirs. Because, my friends, they way we treat them is not about them. It is about us. That is why a young Czech student used the majestic prose of our Declaration of Independence to claim his own rights from a brutal dictatorship. No other country can claim such moral leadership. And we must never, never sacrifice it.
"All lives are a struggle against selfishness. All my life I've stood a little apart from institutions I willingly joined. It just felt natural to me. But if my life had shared no common purpose, it wouldn't have amounted to much more than eccentric. There is no honor or happiness in just being strong enough to be left alone.
"I've made plenty of mistakes. And I have many regrets. But only when I have separated my interests from my country's are those regrets profound and lasting. That is the honor and the privilege of public service in a nation that isn't just land and ethnicity, but an idea and a cause. Any benefit that ever accrued to me on occasions in my public life when I perceived my self-interest as unrelated to the nation I served and unresponsive to the demands of my conscience have been as fleeting as pleasure and as meaningless as an empty gesture.
"In America, our rights come before our duties. We are a free people, and among our freedoms is the liberty to not sacrifice for our birthright. Yet those who claim their liberty but not their duty to the civilization that ensures it, live a half-life, having indulged their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. The richest man or woman, the most successful and celebrated Americans, possess nothing of importance if their lives have no greater object than themselves. They may be masters of their own fate, but what a poor destiny it is that claims no higher cause than wealth or fame.
"Should we claim our rights and leave to others the duty to the nation that protects them, whatever we gain for ourselves will be of little lasting value. It will build no monuments to virtue, claim no honored place in the memory of posterity, offer no worthy summons to other nations. Success, wealth, celebrity gained and kept for private interest is a small thing. It makes us comfortable, eases the material hardships our children will bear, purchases a fleeting regard for our lives, yet not the self-respect that in the end matters most. But sacrifice for a cause greater than your self-interest, and you invest your lives with the eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.
"When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and that all glory was self-glory. My parents tried to teach me otherwise, as did the Naval Academy. But I didn't understand the lesson until later in life, when I confronted challenges I never expected to face.
"In that confrontation I discovered that I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, they gave me a larger sense of myself than I had had before. And I am a better man for it. I discovered that nothing is more liberating in life than to fight for a cause that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone. And that has made all the difference, my friends, all the difference in the world.
"Very far from here and long ago, I served with men of extraordinary character, honorable men, strong, principled, wise, compassionate and loving men. Better men than I, in more was than I can number. They were often treated cruelly. For several years they were tortured by our captors. Some of them were beaten terribly, and worse. Some were killed. Sometimes they were tortured for information that could be used to help our enemy fight the war, and sometimes for information they could use against other prisoners. Most often, they were tortured to compel them to make statements criticizing our country and the cause we had been asked to serve. Many times, their captors would briefly suspend the torture and try to persuade them to make a statement by promising that no one would hear what they said or know that they had sacrificed their convictions. Just say it, and we will spare you anymore pain, they promised, and no one, no one will know. But the men I had the honor of serving with always had the same response. I will know. I will know.
"Those days were long ago. But not so long ago that I have forgotten their purpose and their reward. This is your moment to make history. This is your chance to pierce the veneer of outside things, and to build upon the accomplishments of America's storied past.
"I wish you more than good luck. I wish you the most important thing in the world. I wish that you always here the voice in your own heart, when you face hard decisions in your life, to hear it say to you, again and again, until it drowns out every other thought: I will know. I will know. I will know.
"Thank you and God bless you."