Search Form
First, enter a politician or zip code
Now, choose a category

Public Statements

Remarks by Senator John McCain at the Clinton School of Public Service


Location: Washington, DC

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) will today deliver the following remarks at the University of Arkansas' Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Arkansas:

"Thank you. It's an honor to be here, and talk with you about the privilege and purpose of public service. In gratitude for the opportunity, I'll keep my remarks brief to leave ample time for your questions and comments. I'm more interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject. I'm afraid my own reflections can become just another trip down nostalgia lane, a journey people of my age like to make with dull regularity.

"I'll begin by stating the obvious. Service to a country founded on the ideal that all people are born with the right to liberty and equal justice under the law is the most personally rewarding occupation I can imagine. Admittedly, I have no other occupation to compare it to. I've been employed by the American people my entire adult life. But I can't think of another life that could be more satisfying.

"You can make a lot of mistakes over the course of a more than fifty-year career, and I'm sure there have been days when the public might have wondered if they were getting their money's worth from me. No doubt, I've been an imperfect public servant. But there's one thing I can claim with all sincerity. There has never been a single day in my life, in good times and bad, when I wasn't grateful for the privilege, and when I didn't understand that America has given me more than I could ever give her.

"I think the most important thing for any public servant to understand is that no matter how prestigious or obscure your office or how long or briefly you serve or how much recognition you receive or don't receive, you will end your service more indebted for the privilege than entitled to reward. You'll have already received the greatest reward any of us can ever earn -- your self-respect.

"In America, our rights come before our duties. We are a free people, and among those freedoms is the liberty to sacrifice or not for our birthright. But those who claim their liberty and not their duty to the civilization that ensures it live a half-life, having indulged their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. The richest man or woman, the most successful and celebrated of our citizens possesses nothing important if their lives have no greater object than themselves. They may be masters of their fate, but what a poor destiny it is that claims no higher cause than wealth or fame.

"Should we claim our rights and leave to others our duty to the nation that protects them, whatever we gain for ourselves will be of little lasting value. It will build no monuments to virtue, claim no place in the memory of posterity, offer no worthy summons to others. Success, wealth, celebrity gained and kept for private interest is a small thing. It makes us comfortable, eases the material hardships our children will bear, purchases a fleeting regard for our lives, but not the self-respect that in the end will matter most. But sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest and you invest your lives with the goodness and eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.

"It doesn't matter whether your service is to your neighborhood and community or whether you serve in national office, the reward is the same if you do it for the right reasons. Make your neighborhood better, your town better, your country better, the world better, and it will make you better. We all have flaws. We all sin. We can improve ourselves but we can't fundamentally change our nature. We can only hope to use the best in our nature to do more good than the worst in our nature has done harm. That might seem to be a meager aspiration, but it's not. It's a great and demanding ambition.

"When your time is past, you might be remembered as much for your failures as your successes, but if you've failed in service to worthy and difficult causes, your regrets won't burden you more than you can bear. It's the hard earned things, whether they were failures or triumphs, which matter more to your self-respect than easy successes.

"I don't want to take up too much of your time giving advice you probably don't need. We're brought together today by a school for public service named for a man who devoted most of his life to the public good. I'm sure you already appreciate the value of serving a good cause. Neither do I want to succumb to the temptation to indulge in a reverie for a career that is much nearer its end than its beginning. I'm sure I'll have ample opportunity to give in to that temptation when I'm retired and boring the hell out of my family and friends.

"So, I think I'll impose on you just one story from my time in public life because it involves President Clinton, and marks the beginning of my appreciation for him not just as a very gifted politician, which he surely is -- if I had his gifts I might have different job today -- but as a dedicated public servant who risked his own interests to advance our country's.

"I'm proud of our country's history. We're not a perfect country. We've made mistakes. But what we've achieved in our brief history is irrefutable proof that a nation conceived in liberty will prove stronger than any nation ordered to exalt the few at the expense of the many or made from a common race or culture or to preserve traditions that have no greater attribute than longevity.

"But as great as we are, as blessed as we are, as empowered by liberty as we are, no nation complacent in its greatness can long sustain it. I think the best public servants understand that, and spend their public life trying to improve on the past rather than relive it and helping make possible another, better world. We can learn from history, we can take pride in it, but not as our own accomplishment. Every generation has to make its own history to do that.

"I served in the Vietnam War. I have more good memories of the experience than bad ones. But I've never wanted to relive it. I learned from it just as the country learned from it. And while I can't quite forget it, I always wanted to move on from it. I don't think a person can find much happiness as a captive to their past. And I don't think countries can either.

"About twenty or so years ago, it seemed to some of us that Americans had been fighting about the Vietnam War long enough, and the time had come to begin a relationship with our former adversary that served shared interests rather than perpetuate old grievances. So we began advocating for the normalization of relations with Vietnam. At that time we didn't have diplomatic or commercial relations with the country. We still enforced a trade embargo with Vietnam.

"We only dealt with the Vietnamese on a single issue, an important one -- accounting for Americans who were still listed as missing-in-action or as prisoners-of-war. Beginning with President Reagan's administration, continuing through the Bush administration and into President Clinton's first term, the Vietnamese had been improving their cooperation with us on POW/MIA questions, and we had reached the point where we were finally putting the issue to rest. It was time to move on.

"That was a relatively easy position for me to take. There were people opposed to it, of course, and some people who resented me for taking it. Some veterans of the war, although not a majority of them, disagreed. A majority, but not all of my fellow Senate Republicans did as well. But because I was a veteran, I knew I wasn't taking much of a political risk by advocating for normal relations. It was hard to accuse me of bad faith, and I felt pretty safe from criticism. I think it was the right thing to do, and I'm proud I did it. But it didn't require any political courage on my part.

"That was not the case for President Clinton. He wasn't a veteran and wasn't protected from criticism as I was. He had to risk his self-interest to do the right thing. He had to have courage. And he did.

"Obviously, only the President can normalize and conduct relations with other countries. If President Clinton had put his political interests before the country's interests, the problem would have been left for another President to solve. But he didn't do that. He did the right thing. And the right thing is often the hard thing.

"We had made an informal agreement with Vietnam. If they began helping on POW/MIAs, got out of Cambodia, and released former South Vietnam officials from re-education camps, we would begin discussing normalization. When they hit certain benchmarks on POW/MIA accounting, we would lift the trade embargo. When we were assured that accounting would continue until all the questions that could be answered would be answered, we would establish diplomatic relations, including the exchange of ambassadors.

"At every stage of that process, President Clinton kept his word and did the hard but right thing. I know quite of few of his advisors weren't eager to take on the issue, and cautioned him against it. He got a fair amount of heat for it from some veterans and more than a few Republicans. I don't think it helped his re-election prospects. But he had the satisfaction of knowing that he helped two countries, ours and our former enemy, move beyond our tragic past and build a better future that served the interests of both our people.

"Today, old grievances are replaced by new hopes. Increasing numbers of Americans visit Vietnam every year -- including three U.S. presidents -- drawn to the country's spectacular natural beauty and friendly people. Bilateral trade is more than 80 times greater than it was in 1994, when the U.S. lifted its trade embargo. This has benefited the people of both countries and enabled millions of Vietnamese to lift themselves out of poverty.

"Our defense relationship has evolved to an extent that was simply unimaginable even a decade ago. Our militaries exercise together, and Cam Ranh Bay is again a port of call for the U.S. Navy. Indeed, the USS John McCain, a Navy destroyer named for my father and grandfather, recently made a port visit in Danang, which shows that if you live long enough, anything is possible.

"Our countries had a difficult and heartbreaking past. But we didn't bind ourselves to the past, and we are now traveling the road from reconciliation to friendship. This promising prospect is among the most satisfying surprises of my life, and one that I expect will astonish me further in the years ahead. It's also one of the proudest accomplishments of my public service.

"I hope President Clinton is proud of it, too. He has earned the right to be, and I thank him for his leadership. He served a cause greater than his self-interest, and that is all is there is to know about the privilege and purpose of public service.

"Thank you."

Skip to top

Help us stay free for all your Fellow Americans

Just $5 from everyone reading this would do it.

Back to top