Sen. John McCain: ‘Our wealth and culture are the product of our freedom’

By Senator John McCain

John McCain (R-Ariz.), died of cancer on August 25, 2018, at age 81.  The senior senator from Arizona was the keynote speaker at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s 15th anniversary celebration on October 9, 2006. These are excerpts from his speech.

These are challenging days. Elections approaching. My party has a tough fight on its hands.

Part of the reasons are the difficulties of war, and America’s waning patience with it. Partly, it is just a typical cyclical challenge for the party in power, the sixth year of a presidency. But a part of it is our own fault. And we must not only remind the voters of what we have done to deserve their support, but acknowledge where we have let them down, and convince them that we intend to return to the principles and policies that won us office in the first place.

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) chats with Foundation board Members Craig Lesser (left) and Bob Hatcher (right) before his speech at the Foundation’s 15th anniversary celebration in 2006. The senator and former prisoner of war died August 25 at age 81, losing his battle with cancer.

Many years ago, Ronald Reagan inspired me to change careers. His critics often derided him as nothing more than a talented showman. He had the gifts of a showman, indeed. But he understood that the most effective public leadership is always that which is firmly rooted in authenticity. His was not a presidency that substituted slogans for principles, spin for truth, or window dressing for action. He was not content to leave well enough alone, as long as well enough, however unwell it really was, secured electoral majorities for them.

And there is a lesson for us. Take on the big problems. Don’t hide from hard challenges in the hope that exaggerating small advances or avoiding setbacks will trick the voters into crediting them as major achievements. Act on principle, and trust free people who can, despite all the illusions and prevarications of modern political campaigns, still sniff out a phony. Show them that there are things that matter more to us than holding power. Because when the people see us act on principle, see us tackle the hardest, most consequential problems, and risk our personal ambitions in the process, they will draw the right conclusion: that we are acting on their behalf, not just our own, and in defense of the interests and values that unite free people everywhere, whatever their political persuasion.

Inspirational leadership challenges people. It does not seek to mislead them into a false sense of complacency or hide the realities, no matter how intimidating, of a threat. No solution to any great problem can succeed if the full dimensions of the problem are obscured from public knowledge. Be honest and brave and determined to place the country’s interests before anything else, even our personal interests, and the people will give us our chance.

We face many serious challenges that threaten the quality of life we have managed over the years to achieve through our industry, courage and fidelity to our ideals. The world is changing. The immediacy of modern communications, globalization, the ever-expanding flow of international commerce in goods and ideas and capital all cause dislocations in the short term even as they promise levels of prosperity for the entire world undreamed of a generation ago. We must make improvements in our industries, educational system, diplomacy and other institutions that address those dislocations. But it must not be our task to devise policies to arrest the progress of commerce. We must expand its progress and ensure that ever greater numbers of people reap the benefits. These changes are driven by competition engendered by free markets that we have, to our enormous credit and benefit, long trusted as the engine of our prosperity. Indeed, the remedy to short-term dislocations is a greater application of free market principles to public endeavors.

In American public education, for instance, the best impetus to prod it into making the changes necessary to prepare children to succeed in the modern world is to provide it a little competition, which, at present, only exists for those wealthy enough to afford private schools. The United States does not have an education system that befits the most prosperous society on earth. And it is not because we haven’t spent enough money on it. It is because we have allowed it to develop so that it has no impetus to change, but only to guard zealously its own prerogatives. Those who reject this notion must sacrifice in their defense of the status quo the very people they intend to protect, the underprivileged, who won’t have the opportunity to escape a change resistant institution, and force public education to reform itself.

Another great challenge is our aging population, and the challenge that poses for both public and private pensions, and medical entitlements. We must inform the American people, with unadorned candor, that, for many of them, the entitlements they were promised in old age simply won’t exist in present form when they retire. We can either do something about that now or let the problem grow far worse and leave it for our unlucky successors to confront.  

The best argument for our continued majority is that progress we have made in placing on the federal bench judges whose first priority is to interpret our Constitution fairly and conservatively, and not substitute their ideas and wishes for our framers and the people we and they serve.

The 5th Amendment states, in part: “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.

This great country is different from others, in many respects, not the least of which is our very strong system of property rights. Your property could not be taken from you except for “public use,” and then only with “just compensation.”

In Kelo vs. City of New London, the Supreme Court undermined that principle, by approving New London’s use of eminent domain to seize the property of one private owner and transfer it to a commercial developer claiming it was in the public interest. Well, it may or may not be in the public interest but it is impossible to see how, as the court claimed, this involuntary transfer of property, from one private owner to another, was for “public use” as the 5th Amendment requires.

The decision was widely and justly criticized by Americans, correctly seeing in it the destruction of the age-old tradition of using eminent domain only sparingly for purposes such as road building and other necessary public works. If government now has the power to expropriate your property for an “economic benefit,” none of us is secure. Who gets to define “economic benefit?” The courts, I didn’t know they were qualified for such work.

Republicans have held congressional majorities for 12 years, and the presidency for six. A danger to all majority parties, but particularly to conservatives since it is so antithetical to our core philosophy, is the insidious, creeping conceit that to be the governing party we must become the party of government. That’s what happens when you come to value your incumbency more than your principles. Republicans should believe in a short list of self-evident truths: love of country; the importance of a strong national defense; steadfast opposition to threats against our security and values that matches resources to ends wisely; the integrity of the rights of individuals and the values of families and local communities; the wonders of free markets; encouraging entrepreneurship and small business; low taxes; fiscal discipline; and generally, the government that governs best governs least. As a governing party we should emphasize that government should only do those things necessary for the well being of the nation – and do them efficiently — that individuals can’t do for themselves. Much rides on that principle: the integrity of the government; our solvency; and every citizen’s self-respect, which depends, as it always has, on one’s own decisions and actions, and cannot be provided as just another government benefit.

We came to office to reduce the size of government and enlarge the sphere of free and private initiative. But lately, we have increased government in order to stay in office. And, soon, if we don’t remember why we were elected we will have lost our office along with our principles, and leave a mountain of debt that our children’s grandchildren will suffer from long after we have departed this earth. Because, my friends, hypocrisy is the most obvious of sins, and the people will punish it.

Free people, even if they are not entirely convinced by your policy arguments, will appreciate that when politicians risk their office for the sake of their convictions, when they seek office to do something rather than to be someone, that we have put the country’s interests before our own, and, thus, are worthy objects of their respect, and, for at least a time, their support. We have to prove the efficacy of our policies over time, but we will have our chance. And we must seize it boldly, to make progress in the tough challenges, and to reaffirm to the public that we are about great things, hard things, that will take time, and that can’t be solved without the honesty, courage and resolve we share with them.

All problems, foreign and domestic, are best addressed with the honesty, courage and faith in our principles that remain, I hope, the distinguishing features of conservatives’ approach to problem-solving. Ronald Reagan knew that our security was best protected by advancing our values. We now face challenges that are different and more diffuse than those we faced in the Cold War. Some on both the Left and the Right argue that our advocacy of democratic values in Iraq and elsewhere is reckless and vain; that freedom only works for wealthy nations and Western cultures. Others argue that we are partially responsible for the jihadists, if not the tactics they use, by meddling in the world when we should stay within our own borders, protect our industries from foreign competition and our culture from new immigrants. Some of these critics are of the garden variety Left, as mystified by history’s repeated lessons as they always were. But some were once determined cold warriors who believe that it was enough to have opposed communism and that once we had defeated the Soviets, our world leadership became an expensive vanity.

But such a cramped view of our purpose is blind to the futility of building walls in a world made remarkably smaller because of the success of our values. A world where our political and economic values had a realistic chance at becoming a global creed was the principal object of our foreign policy for much of the last century. We conservatives were its most effective and ardent advocates, and it must remain our principal object today. We understood better than others that our security interests and the global advance of our ideals are inextricably linked. And we surely didn’t accept the notion that freedom was the product of our wealth and culture. Our wealth and culture are the product of our freedom.

We once thought we could leave Afghanistan to its endless misery once it was no longer a theater of Cold War competition. What interests of ours were affected by the oppression inflicted on an exotic and remote people? We learned the answer to that question on September 11, 2001. We once relied on our friends, the Saudis, a reliable supplier of oil and purported force for moderation in the tumultuous politics of the Middle East. As long as the regime was stable, what difference did it make if it paid a little lip service and bribe money to extremist clerics who preached in their madrassas a toxic brand of anti-West hatred to men who had no other cause to live for? We learned the answer on September 11, 2001. There is no distinction between our interests and our values. They are the same. We must marshal our ideals into battle, and we must organize our diplomacy, our commerce, our intelligence and our armies behind them.

That doesn’t mean that we have to risk lives and resources needlessly, lurching ineffectually from one crisis to another. But it does mean that we should defend our interests and values when they are threatened using all means short of violence when effective and military power when necessary. Strength and courage should be the qualities of our statecraft. We should make our way in this complex and dangerous world as we did in the great challenges of the last century: sure of ourselves, firm in our purpose and proud of our heritage.

We must show Americans we are intent on protecting them with the might of our armed forces, with improvements to our intelligence capabilities and law enforcement, with adept and wise diplomacy, with the hand of friendship to those who wish to help, and the hammer of justice to those who oppose us, and with the power of our ideals, the world transforming power of the notion that self-government, life and liberty, are intended for all societies, all cultures, all people.

Let us be clear in our appeals for support in this struggle not to attempt to placate public apprehension with false promises of swift victory and passing dangers. They have seen enough of this war, in Iraq, Afghanistan and on our own streets to know better. We have an advantage over some countries. We are a practical and stouthearted people. We can take the truth better than we can stand deceit and hypocrisy. Show Americans respect by being honest about the problem and its remedies, and they, in turn, will give us their respect. But assure them to that we will prevail in this struggle. We will not be vanquished by forces that despise the laws and ideals that protect us. We will never surrender. They will.

Reprinted by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation with kind permission of U.S. Senator John McCain, (R-Arizona). The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (Oct 24, 2006). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.


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