When all was said and done, all the American media saw was a presumed dig at President Donald Trump. But in the speech he gave while receiving the 2017 Liberty Medal, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said much more than that. He looked back on his life, his political career, the events that shaped America – and the events America shaped.
The next day, the headlines raved about McCain's "half-baked spurious nationalism" dig at the sitting president.
French President Emanuel Macron just defeated Marine Le Pen, who wanted to ban any display of religious beliefs – including yarmulkes and turbans – which she considered "not French." In the UK, far-right broadcaster and analyst Nigel Farage led a campaign that resulted in a vote forcing Britain to leave the European Union, for better or for worse. And across Europe – from Spain to Greece – a wave of far-right nationalist populism and isolationism has captured the interest of the population, each looking for a "scapegoat" of its own.
Demonstrators with "estelada," or the Catalonia independent flag, gather in protest in front of the Spanish police station in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 3, 2017. (Voice of America)
The Senator didn't mention Europe specifically. He did say that America, "the most wondrous land on earth," still has a special role to play in the world and should rise above the urge to isolate itself from the rest of the world, that American leadership is going to be as necessary in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.
He also implied that Americans should leave the past behind, a not-so-subtle reference to the resurgence of Nazism and Confederate pride in the U.S.' recent days.
"This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another, better world," McCain said. "And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on Dec. 7, 1941."
John McCain after his release from a Vietnamese prison camp, with his father, Retired Admiral John S. McCain.
The 81-year-old Vietnam veteran and former POW went on to speak like a man who is looking back on his life and leaving us with the parting thoughts of a lifelong public servant. McCain was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, and his prognosis was not good.
"We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don't," he said. "We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn't deserve to."
Presenting McCain with his medal was former Vice-President, erstwhile Senate opposition, and longtime friend, Joe Biden. The two most notably ran on opposite tickets in the 2008 Presidential Election where McCain lost to the Obama-Biden ticket.
Before Sen. McCain began his remarks, he commented on the multi-decade friendship between the two.
Then Vice-President Joe Biden and Sen. John McCain share a laugh behind the scenes.
"We served in the Senate together for over 20 years," McCain said, "during some eventful times, as we passed from young men to the fossils who appear before you this evening."
McCain was presented with the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center, a medal meant to honor "men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over." Previous recipients include Nelson Mandela, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and former General and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
As he closed, McCain recounted the innumerable people he worked with in his 60 years of service in the Navy and in the U.S. government.
Senator McCain can't fully raise his arms due to injuries he suffered as a POW.
"I have enjoyed it, every single day of it, the good ones and the not so good ones. I've been inspired by the service of better patriots than me," McCain said. "I've seen Americans make sacrifices for our country and her causes and for people who were strangers to them but for our common humanity, sacrifices that were much harder than the service asked of me. And I've seen the good they have done, the lives they freed from tyranny and injustice, the hope they encouraged, the dreams they made achievable."