REMARKS BY SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN PUBLIC POLICY INSTITUTE
April 19, 2000These reforms are not ends in themselves. They are means to a much more important end. They are intended to build and sustain Americans’ pride in the way we govern ourselves, and in the end, to remind us all, those of us lucky enough to serve in government and those who elect us, what a special thing it is to be an American. I was reminded of that every single day of the campaign by Americans, those who supported me and those who did not, who wanted little for themselves individually, but simply for our country to remain “the last, best hope of earth.”
For those of us who compete in the public arena, however, our responsibilities are not limited to our support for reform. We can have honest differences about the details and priorities of various reforms and still meet our most solemn obligation to the people, and that is to restore their respect for their government; to help them feel reconnected to the conduct of the nation’s affairs; to assure them, once again, that the government of the greatest nation on earth is nothing less than an honest representation of their patriotism, a reflection of the best qualities of the American people.
I have spoken many times of the pervasive and growing cynicism in America, especially among our young. That cynicism threatens to become a ceiling on our greatness. Too many Americans no longer see themselves as part of a cause greater than themselves. We are fast becoming a nation of alienated individualists, unwilling to put the unifying values of patriotism ahead of our narrow self-interest.
If we are ever to repair the public’s growing estrangement from their government, then we who are privileged to hold elected office must prove, everyday, over and over again, that we are fit to hold a public trust. The best leadership in a democracy is not by fiat or decree. The best leadership in this great country is always leadership by example.
Too many Americans see politics as little more than money-chasing, attack ads and the lies we call spin. They are cynical because they perceive in us a cynicism that is so deep that it mocks their patriotism. They don’t expect us to tell the truth. They expect us to lie.
As a candidate for President, I knew that I had assumed an obligation to conduct my campaign in a way that would not exacerbate public cynicism about politics, that would, I hoped, help remedy it. In a speech I delivered last January, I promised to rise to the occasion before me, and meet the public’s just demand for leadership that respects the dignity of the nation. I asked to be judged by the way I personally practiced politics. I promised to tell the truth always about my intentions and my beliefs.
I fell short of that standard in South Carolina, and I want to finish today by owning up to my failure. I made several mistakes in my campaign. I regret them, but I can live with their consequences because I believe them to have been simple errors in judgement and not an unprincipled act. Only once, I believe, did I act in an unprincipled way. But once is enough, and I want to apologize to the people of South Carolina and to all Americans for breaking my promise to always tell you the truth.
I was asked during the course of my campaign how I personally felt about the Confederate battle flag that flies above your state capitol. I answered that it was an issue that the people of South Carolina could decide for themselves. That is a fact. You are capable of resolving this dispute yourselves. Indeed, you appear closer to doing just that than you were a few months ago, and I commend all South Carolinians who are acting in good faith to lay this divisive controversy to rest.
While my response was factually accurate, it did not answer the question I was asked: how did I personally feel about the flag? When pressed on that, I answered, repeatedly, that while some view it as a symbol of oppression, others cherish it as a symbol of an honorable heritage. That, too, was a factual response, but it was not an honest answer to the question.
My ancestors fought for the Confederacy, and I am sure that many, maybe all of them, fought with courage and with faith that they were serving a cause greater than themselves. But I don’t believe their service, however distinguished, needs to be commemorated in a way that offends, that deeply hurts, people whose ancestors were once denied their freedom by my ancestors. Those ancestors of mine might have fought honorably, they might have fought to uphold a principle they believed was just. But they fought to sever the union of our great nation, a cause that would have terribly harmed America, perhaps irreparably, and, for a time at least, perpetuated the grave injustice of slavery. They fought on the wrong side of American history. That, my friends, is how I personally feel about the Confederate battle flag. That is the honest answer I never gave to a fair question.
I believe the flag should be removed from your capitol. And I am encouraged that fair-minded people on both sides of the issue are working hard to find an honorable compromise. The resolution that recently passed your state Senate seems, at a minimum, to be a good faith effort toward that end, and merits your fair consideration. But I am not here to endorse or suggest any specific way to resolve this issue. I am here only to express my belated wish, my confidence, that you will resolve it – quickly.
As I admitted, I should have done this earlier, when an honest answer could have affected me personally. I did not do so for one reason alone. I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So, I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.
I am not so naïve to believe that politics must never involve compromise. But I was raised to know that I should never sacrifice a principle for personal ambition. I regret very much having done so, for, in this instance, failing the country I had asked to lead.
I do not intend for this apology to help me evade criticism for my failure. I will be criticized by all sides for my late act of contrition. I accept it, all of it. I deserve it. Honesty is easy after the fact, when my own interests are no longer involved. I don’t seek absolution. Like anyone else, I can only try to resist future temptations to abandon principle for expediency, and hope that in the end, my character is judged from the totality of my life, and not by its flaws alone.
I also know that the value my admission may now have in helping resolve this emotional dispute is seriously diminished by my earlier dishonesty. I do hope, however, that in a small way it helps you find common ground on which to bury past injustice and commemorate a heritage, an American heritage, that respects the dignity of mankind. I believe South Carolinians, without any help from me, are well on the way toward finding an honorable resolution, and I salute your civic courage in doing so.
I know you will get there. You are good people. God bless you.