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John McCain on defeat and determination

John McCain knew what it was like to be down. Way down. Here are some of the late senator's words on highs and lows during his decades in public service.

Posted: Aug. 29, 2018 10:11 AM
Updated: Aug. 29, 2018 10:43 AM

John McCain knew what it was like to be down. Way, way down.

From the more than five years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison camp to his implication in the "Keating 5" scandal to his losses in not one but two presidential elections, he was someone well-acquainted with hardship. And he never hid that hardship. In fact, he spoke about it regularly -- talking about how he had learned over time to deal with the setbacks in his life.

"He failed a lot," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon in a speech honoring McCain. "But he never quit."

With the country mourning McCain's passing, I went through a handful of his biggest speeches -- his 2008 concession to Barack Obama, his address upon returning to the Senate following his brain cancer diagnosis and even the letter he penned to be read posthumously by one-time campaign manager Rick Davis on Monday -- to pluck out McCain's most powerful thoughts about loss, longing and the mistakes he made -- and what can be learned from them.

1. "I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties but to believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here." (2008 concession speech)

2. "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." (On not calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol building, April 2000)

3. "We've all played some role in it. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I've let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy." (Senate floor speech, July 2017)

4. "Like most people, I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anyone else's." (Posthumous letter, August 2018)

5. "I think I'm going to miss him more than I can say. We disagreed on most issues, but I admitted -- but I admired his passion for his convictions, his patience with the hard and sometimes dull work of legislating, and his uncanny sense for when differences could be bridged and his cause advanced by degrees." (Speech at Ted Kennedy's memorial service, August 2009)

6. "I have served America's cause -- the cause of our security and the security of our friends, the cause of freedom and equal justice -- all my adult life. I haven't always served it well. I haven't even always appreciated what I was serving. But among the few compensations of old age is the acuity of hindsight. I see now that I was part of something important that drew me along in its wake even when I was diverted by other interests. I was, knowingly or not, along for the ride as America made the future better than the past." (Liberty medal speech, October 2017)

7. "I don't think any of us feels very proud of our incapacity. Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn't the most inspiring work. There's greater satisfaction in respecting our differences, but not letting them prevent agreements that don't require abandonment of core principles, agreements made in good faith that help improve lives and protect the American people." (Senate floor speech, July 2017)

8. "In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving." (2008 concession speech)

9. "I don't mind a good fight. For reasons known only to God, I've had quite a few tough ones in my life. But I learned an important lesson along the way: In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test." (2008 Republican National Committee speech)

10. "I have, sometimes unwittingly and often imperfectly, served that cause all my adult life. Like your service, mine began here in this place of honor and honor's demands. I arrived a rebel without a cause, and left much the same. But I would discover that a sense of honor had been imparted to me here that would speak to me in the darkest hours." (Speech at US Naval Academy, October 2017)

Anyone can be magnanimous and gracious in victory. Few can do so in the face of defeat or disappointment.

John McCain was one of the latter.

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