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Sen. Orrin Hatch: How John McCain embodied the very pinnacle of American virtue

Editor’s note: Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch paid tribute to the late Sen. John McCain on Tuesday with a speech given on the Senate floor. The following are Hatch’s remarks as prepared for delivery.

A Man for All Seasons: Sen. Hatch on the Late John McCain

I rise today to pay tribute to an American hero, a powerful leader, and a dear friend: Senator John McCain. After decades of dedicated service to this nation, John was taken from us over the weekend. The good senator from Arizona fought his battle with brain cancer as he did every battle in his life — with toughness and tenacity, with grit and grace.

This week, I join millions in mourning the passing of a beloved patriot. Over a lifetime of selfless service, John came to embody the very pinnacle of American virtue. Courage, commitment, integrity, and sacrifice: these are the precepts he lived by and by which he will always be remembered. No one is more worthy of the word hero than John McCain. The Senate—indeed, the nation—will miss the steady, guiding presence of a singular statesman.

By now, the biographical details of Senator McCain’s life have been covered at length: The son of a four-star Navy Admiral, John knew great expectations from an early age. He was to go to the Naval Academy—which he did. He was to forego the comforts of civilian life and fight for freedom—which he also did. What’s exceptional about John McCain is that he not only met the heavy expectations placed upon him; he far exceeded them.

Few have ever risen to the positions of influence that John McCain did. Fewer still have done so and kept their character intact. But John McCain did. Indeed, he never parted from it. As a prisoner of war in Vietnam, John was offered release on multiple occasions. Yet he refused each offer, until the POWs incarcerated before him were also released.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John possessed such love, proving time and again his willingness to lay down his life for his brothers in uniform. As a captive, John McCain personified selfless sacrifice, offering himself as a bargaining chip to secure the freedom of his fellow countrymen.

Each day—for more than 2,000 days—he endured horrors that few of us could ever imagine: solitary confinement, forced starvation, repeated beatings, and the constant threat of death. Yet he stayed the course, finding strength in the love he felt for his fellow servicemen—and most of all, the love he felt for his country.

When John was eventually released in the spring of 1973, he came home a living scar of Vietnam. The cartilage in his knees was all but gone, the bones in his body broken by endless beatings. He was a walking testament to the brutalities of torture and the depths of human depravity. But the hell of war was not enough to stop John McCain from being a happy warrior. Upon his return, he continued the same mission he started in Vietnam: looking out for the safety and welfare of his fellow sailors.

The desk of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is draped in black on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. McCain died at the age of 81, on Aug. 25, 2018, after battling brain cancer. (Senate Television via AP)
The desk of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is draped in black on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. McCain died at the age of 81, on Aug. 25, 2018, after battling brain cancer. (Senate Television via AP)

Few remember that before John was elected to Congress, he was the Navy’s Senate Liaison. It was in this capacity that he and I first became friends. Even then, John impressed me with his sense of mission, going incredible lengths to ensure that our servicemen and women had the resources they needed to keep us safe. He would carry that same commitment with him when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1982, and five years later, when he joined us here in the Senate.

The Pentagon had no closer ally than John McCain; it also had no fiercer critic. Like an admiral who demanded only the very best of his sailors, John wanted to ensure that our servicemen were living to their full potential. And so, he held our armed forces to the highest standard, never hesitating to call out bureaucratic complacency and runaway spending in military ranks. Our men and women in uniform were stronger, and our nation more safe, because of his efforts. No one commanded more respect than John McCain as the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

John constantly put others before himself as a prisoner of war, and he did the same as a Senator. He was the kind of friend you could count on for help when you needed it most. Nearly 20 years ago, Governor Mitt Romney—who at the time, had been tasked with salvaging the Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games—came to me with a pressing problem: with only months to go before the opening ceremony, Utah lacked the federal funding it desperately needed to pull off the Olympic Games.

In our moment of need, we turned to Senator McCain. The two of us marched up to Senator McCain’s office in the Russell Building. Even though we came unannounced, Senator McCain gladly received us, and together, Mitt and I made the case for emergency funding. Within days, we had secured the resources we needed to move forward with the Games—all thanks to Senator McCain. Were it not for John’s quick action, I can honestly say that the 2002 Winter Olympics would not have been a success.

So esteemed was John by his Republican colleagues that we didn’t hesitate to throw our support behind him in the 2008 presidential election. Senator McCain mounted an admirable campaign, refusing to stoop to the political mudslinging that all too often defines presidential contests. I agree with the assessment of the late Charles Krauthammer: “McCain ran a valiant race against impossible odds. He will be—he should be—remembered as the most worthy presidential nominee ever to be denied the prize.”

We will remember John for many things: for his courage as a sailor, for his dedication as a Senator, and for his principle as a statesman. We will also remember how he embodied the best in us. John McCain was a man for all seasons—a voice of temperance in intemperate times, and a model of civility and reason. The tragedy of his passing is that we need men like John McCain now more than ever before.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have known John, and even luckier to have called him a friend. Here in the Senate and across the nation, we will miss him dearly. John, thank you for blessing us with your service and your sacrifice. Today, my prayers are with the people of Arizona and the McCain family.