In his speech to midshipmen Monday night at the Naval Academy, Sen. John McCain outlined 81 years of history, briefing the young men and women on America’s fight against facism during World War II, and its fight against communism.
Who could have imagined in the depths of the Cold War that the Soviet Union would peacefully cede to the reunification of Germany, or the independence of all its satellite states, McCain said. And yet it happened.
“But the contrast between the hopeful atmosphere of 1991, and the current circumstances of our world is a stark one,” McCain said.
We have gone from a world where the global success of democracy seemed badured for a time, to one in which the seductions of authoritarian rule find favor with many, McCain said.
“We are asleep in our echo chambers, where our views are always affirmed, and information that contradicts them is always fake,” McCain said. “We are asleep in our polarized politics, which exaggerates our differences and looks for scapegoats instead of answers, and insist we get all our way all the time in a system of government based on compromise and principled cooperation and restraint.”
McCain stood before the brigade of midshipmen Monday in a lecture that he asked to give.
He spoke about his time at the academy, about service and about honor. But he also offered a warning — the American values that have led the international order for three-quarters of a century are under attack by regimes that would rather have a world less just, less free, and more corrupt, McCain said.
Those values are also under attack by forces within democracy itself, McCain said — partisans who preach nationalism and nativism over liberal justice.
“It’s time to wake up,” he said. “I believe in America. We’re capable of better. I’ve seen it. We’re hopeful, compbadionate people.”
“We have to fight against propaganda, and crackpot conspiracy theories,” McCain said. “We have to fight isolationism, protectionism and nativism. We have to defeat those who would worsen our divisions.”
Then he said a line that drew applause from the audience before him.
“We have to remind our sons and daughters that we became the most powerful nation on earth by tearing down walls, not building them,” McCain said.
That’s not directly a job for midshipmen, McCain said, it’s a job for elected officials. But they are tasked with defending American interests and ideals overseas, McCain said.
“You will protect the international order that America politics, with all its inefficiencies and human frailties, has done so much to create,” McCain said. “Many of you will risk everything for your country. You will make sacrifices for your fellow Americans, who won’t be asked to make sacrifices for you.”
America is lucky to have them, and they are lucky to have America, McCain said — even in the worst of times. The American ideals are that every child on Earth is made in the imagine of God, endowed with dignity, and the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
McCain appeared emotional at that line, and continued.
“It is a noble cause, it’s your cause, and it’s worth living and dying for,” he said.
It started for him at the Naval Academy, just like it was starting now for them, McCain said. The sense of honor he gained at the academy would accompany him through his darkest hours, he said.
McCain also took questions from the audience — more questions than officials expected. Several times they said there was time for just one more question, but McCain disagreed and let more midshipmen ask him about his own experiences, and his thoughts to threats such as Russia, China and North Korea.
“Since we’re not doing anything in the Senate, might as well,” he said.
At the 2017 Naval History Conference earlier this month, McCain said in a pre-recorded video interview that there were times in his life when he didn’t do the right thing. One of the midshipmen Monday asked him about that statement, and he recalled a trip to South Carolina during his 2000 campaign for president.
At the time, flying the Confederate flag over the state’s capital was a hot issue. When he was campaigning, he told the people of South Carolina that what they flew over their state capital was up to them.
“My friends, that was the wrong answer,” McCain said. “And I lost anyway.”
He said at the time he knew it was the wrong thing to say, and urged the midshipmen, again, to always do the right thing.
Another midshipmen asked him about the ongoing special investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. McCain said there is no doubt that Russia tried — but he hasn’t seen any evidence that they affected the outcome.
“But the more we know, the more we know,” McCain said. “I’ve seen these scandals before, and it’s a centipede. Every few days another shoe drops.”
He could have predicted the indictments that were announced Monday months ago, he said.
He expressed concern in the erosion of confidence of the American people in the election system, he said, and talked about the threats of cyber warfare.
“The issue of cyber warfare is going to be with us for a long, long time,” he said.
At the end of the address, he was presented with a blue and gold bath robe, a gift from the midshipmen.
But before that, in closing remarks, he said America is still the best and strongest nation in the world.
“Never bet against the United States of America,” he said. “Do not do so.”