ANNAPOLIS – U.S. Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., emphasized the importance of personal honor and campaign finance reform to an audience of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy on Wednesday night.
Sen. McCain, whose speech was part of the Forrestal lecture series at the Academy, lamented the fact that politicians’ dubious campaign practices caused Americans to distrust those they elected to represent them.
“As long as the wealthiest Americans can make six-figure contributions to political parties and gain special access to power,” he said, “most Americans will dismiss even the most virtuous claim of fairness and patriotism.”
The Naval Academy graduate and decorated ex-POW added that the political profession must regain its honor if politicians are to win back the confidence of the electorate.
“I feel it is imperative to do all I can to address the causes of the public’s distrust,” he said.
McCain said that true honor comes only from being true to one’s ideals, not from seeking the accolades of constituents or special interest groups.
“`Character,’ said a 19th century evangelist, `is what you are in the dark,'” he said. “For a politician, that presents a dilemma, for we like to have our virtue affirmed in the public spotlight.”
To illustrate his concept of character, McCain emotionally recounted the story of a fellow naval aviator called Mark Christian, with whom he shared a prison cell as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
While imprisoned, Christian sewed an American flag onto the inside of his prison shirt. Each morning, McCain said, the prisoners would hang the shirt on the wall and salute the flag with the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
When the prison guards eventually found the flag during a room search, it was confiscated and Christian was severely beaten in front of the other prisoners.
“That night, I woke up and saw someone huddled in the corner of the room,” he said, his voice shaking slightly. “It was Mark Christian. He was sewing another flag in the dark, with his eyes swollen almost all the way shut. He didn’t do it for himself — he did it because he knew how much it meant to us.”
McCain also fielded questions from midshipmen on issues such as restoring relations with Vietnam, William Weld’s aborted nomination as ambassador to Mexico and McCain’s own presidential aspirations. He demurred on the last of those questions.
“If you are a United States senator, unless you are under indictment or in detoxification, you will consider yourself a candidate for president,” he joked.
On a more serious note, McCain closed his remarks on honor by recounting the story of a team of Marines who died during a botched rescue mission near the end of the Vietnam war.
“In the fog or a battle gone wrong,” he said, “they held high a lantern of courage and faith that illuminated the way home with honor.” The Forrestal lecture series, begun in 1970, is named for late Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal. -30-