Emotional McCain urges midshipmen to fight for ideals ‘under attack’

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, acknowledges the applause of U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, whom he praised for their service and called on to defend American values. (Photo by Joel T. Vernile/Cronkite News)

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, sometimes choked up during his speech to midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was a student more than 60 years ago. (Photo by Joel T. Vernile/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – An emotional Sen. John McCain returned Monday to the U.S. Naval Academy where he entered public service more than 60 years ago, and called on midshipmen there to always to “do the right thing” and fight for American ideals.

Those ideals are currently “under attack” by forces at home and abroad, said McCain, repeating a theme he has sounded in a series of high-profile speeches since being diagnosed with brain cancer this summer.

“We have to defeat those who would worsen our division,” the Arizona Republican said. “We have to remind our sons and daughters that we became the most powerful nation on Earth by tearing down walls, not building them.”

A wistful McCain choked up as he remembered adventures, lessons, and friendships from his life at and after the academy, expressing “gratitude … for the privilege of being a bit player in the story of America that the Navy made possible.”

The speech was delivered to a hall packed with the entire brigade of midshipman, who applauded some points in the speech. Included in the brigade were a number of midshipmen who had been appointed by McCain in his more than three decades in Congress.

“I owe my position here and my future to him, and that’s something that I’ll probably never be able to repay to him,” said Madeline Arbogast, a third-class midshipman from Sahuarita.

“The military itself is very focused on teamwork and unison and fighting as one team,” she said. “I think John McCain really put a lot of emphasis on that tonight.”

McCain did, but not before referencing his less-than-illustrious career at the academy, to the delight of the mids in attendance. McCain, a third generation academy student whose father and grandfather rose to become admirals, said he was “as relieved to graduate – fifth from the bottom of my class – as the Naval Academy was to see me go.”

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“I arrived a rebel without a cause, and left much the same,” he said. “But I would discover that a sense of honor had been imparted to me here that would speak to me in the darkest hours.”

McCain graduated from the academy in 1958, became a naval aviator and was shot down 50 years ago last week while on a mission over Hanoi. That began a five-year stretch as a prisoner of war in Vietnam where he was brutalized and tortured.

He later ran for office, winning election from Arizona to the House in 1982 and then election in 1986 to the first of what would become six terms in the Senate.

McCain crafted a reputation as a maverick in his years in office, but has been even more sharp in recent months in his criticism of the prevailing mood in Washington. McCain, who bucked his party and provided the critical vote against two GOP health-care bills this summer, spoke Monday about standing for the ideals of freedom in a time of “polarized politics which exaggerates our differences.”

“We are asleep in our echo chambers,” McCain said, “where our views are always affirmed and information that contradicts it is always fake.”

He also used his speech to criticize the current political state and call on the U.S. to assume the mantle of leadership in the world.

“How did we end up here? Why do many Americans ignore our moral and historical knowledge and seek escape from the world we led so successfully?” he asked.

“I’ve seen America become a more just and prosperous country, coming ever closer to the ideals set down by our founders,” he said. “But we need only look back upon my own lifetime to understand how hard-fought those victories were.”

McCain lingered after the speech to take questions from the midshipmen that ranged from the personal to politics to current global policy.

Alexander Larralde, 21, a midshipman from Litchfield Park who was appointed by McCain, said he was “definitely honored” to be at what could be “one of his last public appearances,” an experience he said was humbling.

“I owe everything to him. His nomination got me into this institution,” Larralde said. “I’m just going to give it 110 percent every day in honor of him.”