Accepting the National Constitution Center's Liberty Medal on Monday night, Sen. John McCain blasted "half-baked, spurious nationalism," saying the United States has a moral obligation to act as an international leader.
On a night where speakers praised McCain's bipartisan bona fides, it was a stinging rebuke of the politics that brought President Trump to power, and drew some in the crowd — and former Vice President Joe Biden, onstage — to stand and applaud.
"We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent," McCain said. "We wouldn't deserve to."
McCain is the 29th recipient of the annual award, which the Constitution Center says honors "men and women of courage and conviction."
Past honorees have included U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Dalai Lama, the education advocate Malala Yousafzai and Hillary Clinton.
None of the speakers Monday night — including Biden, University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz — mentioned Trump. But the bombastic, polarizing politics that his election took to new heights undercut much of the event, with speakers citing McCain's willingness to cross the aisle in six terms in the Senate. The crowd cheered when Schultz mentioned McCain's dramatic vote against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act this summer.
"Can we hear that again?" Schultz asked the audience, and drew another round of sustained applause.
Biden, presenting the medal, said he remembered watching footage of McCain's return to American soil in 1973, after the Navy pilot spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain, the son of a storied Navy family, had been offered early release after his capture, but refused, and endured years of torture in a Hanoi prison.
"Seeing that handsome young flyer, pushed beyond the boundaries of human endurance, still unbowed — I thought, my God," Biden recalled, and said he hoped to meet the pilot someday. By the end of the decade, they would meet: McCain took a position as the Navy liaison to the Senate; he and the young senator from Delaware traveled together often. McCain said he occasionally carried Biden's bags.
"The son of a gun never carried my bags," Biden joked.
Biden said McCain, who remained a close friend during their years serving in the Senate — and through a bruising presidential campaign in 2008 — had inspired him and his family, including his son Beau, who served in the Army National Guard in Iraq and died of brain cancer in 2015. McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer himself just before the ACA repeal attempt this summer, and returned to Washington days after surgery to vote against the bill.
"Duty, duty, duty," Biden said. "That's the marrow running through his solid steel spine."
Opening his speech, McCain hewed to familiar tropes: He said he was honored to receive the award, and, like the speakers before him, stressed that bipartisanship and compromise should win the day in the Capitol — and around the country. He said it was a privilege to serve "this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country."
Then, he said, Americans need to reject nationalism "cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems."
It's a worldview, he said, "as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history."
"We live in a land made of ideals," McCain said, "not blood and soil," referencing the Nazi slogan chanted by white supremacists at a rally in Charlottesville, Va., this summer that left a counterprotester dead and dozens injured.
He called himself the "luckiest guy on earth" for being given the opportunity to serve.
"The world still looks to the example and leadership of America to become another, better place," he said. "What greater cause could anyone ever serve?"
Attendees said they had been inspired by the night's emphasis on bipartisanship.
"Biden and McCain are two of my favorite politicians, old-school guys who reached across the aisle," said Carole Rykaczewski of Old City. "I wish [calls for bipartisanship] could be more than just talk. But hope springs eternal in America."
Former President Barack Obama, in the meantime, tweeted his congratulations to McCain, with whom he also served in the Senate.