Joe Biden, John McCain, And The State Of American Politics

Former Vice-President Biden's eulogy for his friend John McCain is a lesson in what has gone wrong with American politics.

Yesterday afternoon, Arizona said farewell to Senator John McCain for the last time and, as expected, the high point of the service was the thirty-minute long eulogy that former Vice-President Joe Biden delivered for his friend:

In a tribute that capped days of mourning in Arizona for John McCain, former Vice President Joe Biden said the senator exemplified values that will endure his passing.

Eulogizing his friend, with whom he traveled the world and on whom he leaned in times of personal pain, Biden spoke of the “McCain code,” values forged during his days in the Navy and lived every day afterward. Values that Biden said will endure.

With his voice rising inside the cavernous North Phoenix Baptist Church, Biden rejected the notion that McCain reflects the end of an era.

“Things have changed so much in America, they look at him as if John came from another age because he lived by a different code, an ancient, antiquated code where honor, courage, character, integrity, duty mattered,” Biden said.

“The truth is John’s code was ageless, is ageless. It wasn’t about politics with John. You could disagree on substance,” Biden added. “It was about the underlying values that animated everything John did.”

Biden said most of those who knew him will miss McCain’s character, but for the McCain family, they have lost the man in their lives.

For them, Biden spoke not just as  a Washington colleague, but someone who has lost a loved one to cancer. Biden’s son, Beau, died of a similar brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.

“For that, there is no balm but time,” he said. “Time and your memories of a life lived well, lived fully.”

McCain’s funeral drew 24 members of the U.S. Senate and more than 3,000 others whose lives he touched.

You can read the text of Biden’s eulogy here, and watch the video below:

Jennifer Rubin comments on Biden’s words:

Like the man who delivered it, former vice president Joe Biden’s eulogy for Sen. John McCain was funny, open and self-deprecating. Beyond that, his words were nearly operatic in their emotional arc. Biden spoke to McCain’s family, drawing on the well of his own sorrow following the untimely death of his son, Beau. “I promise you, I promise you,” he repeated that there will be a time when a smile rather than a tear comes first in recalling your departed loved one. When that happens, he counseled, “you know you’re going to make it.” His description of the searing pain that envelops one in mourning would bring tears and knowing nods to anyone who has lost a dearly loved one. “It’s like being sucked into a black hole inside your chest, and it’s frightening,” he said. And you knew he spoke from experience.

He also provided the comfort and candor only someone who has known great loss can impart. “There’s nothing anyone can say or do to ease the pain right now. But I pray, I pray you take some comfort knowing that because you shared John with all of us your whole life, the world now shares with you the ache of John’s death.”

Biden traced his and McCain’s careers and shared some escapades, but when he got to explaining why McCain’s death has moved the entire country, his eulogy took flight. Biden restated the animating belief that sustained McCain in his prison cell in Hanoi and guided him his entire life. The Arizona senator, said Biden, “was neither selfish or self-serving. John understood that America, first and foremost, was an idea . . . organized around, not tribe, but ideals.”

Beyond that, however, Biden distilled the essence of McCain and his model of optimism. “John didn’t believe that America’s future and fate rested on heroes,” Biden said, adding that McCain “understood what I hope we all remember: Heroes didn’t build this country; ordinary people given half a chance are capable of doing extraordinary things — extraordinary things.” And that unflinching optimism in Americans’ inherent decency, ingenuity, diligence and willingness to sacrifice made us believe in those things, too.

Biden is right. Americans want to believe in that America, where goodness, kindness, respect and honor are self-evident, and that those values are what make us great. McCain, in one sense, was the true populist. We do not believe in a strongman or any one man to solve our problems. We do not run from challenges or turn a deaf ear toward suffering. It was McCain’s conviction that helped many of us believe, especially during the long winter of this presidency, that his code, what Biden called the “McCain code,” can endure. We want to be better, and McCain helped us believe that was possible.

Over at CNN, Chris Cillizza comments that Biden’s eulogy is an object lesson in what’s wrong with American politics today:

The prevailing “value” of modern politics is partisanship: You are good if you are on my team. You are not just bad, but morally bankrupt, if you are on the other side. You are real if you are on my team and fake if you aren’t. Anything the captain of my team says can be justified (and agreed with) because, well, they’re the captain of my team. Anything the other team’s captain says is wrong, by default, because they’re the captain of the other team. There’s no reason to listen to people on the other team. Or make friends with them. Or even be seen with them. They aren’t on my team. Why would I do that?

President Donald Trump is the walking, talking epitome of the sanctification of partisanship over all our other, real, values. (Yes, the irony is not lost on me — and should not be lost on you — that the modern patron saint of partisanship is someone who has been, literally, a Democrat, an independent and a Republican all within the last decade or so.) This is a man who has declared, repeatedly, that the mainstream media is the “enemy of the people.” A man who said his Democratic opponent in the 2016 election should be jailed. A man who has called elected officials of his own party who disagreed with him “incompetent,” “weak and ineffective” and “so bad,” among many other things. A man who, while McCain was home in Arizona fighting the brain cancer that eventually killed him, would use the story of McCain voting against health care repeal legislation to symbolize the Arizona senator’s alleged backstabbing. (“One senator decided to put the thumb down,” Trump would say in his standard stump speech. “That was not a good thing.”)

To be clear: Trump doesn’t take this if-you-aren’t-with-me-you’re-against-me view out of any sort of principles. After all, he made his living in the private sector as a deal-maker, someone who always saw compromise as possible — even in the darkest of situations. And as I noted above, Trump has been all over the map in terms of his personal politics. This is not a man wedded to a certain, unwavering view of what’s right in the world.

Trump has elevated pure, unstinting partisanship into a virtue because it works for him politically. The Republican base was mad as hell at its elected leaders who they believed were all too willing to compromise on core principles. And not just compromise, but compromise badly; conservatives have long believed that Democrats always got the best of Republicans when it came to the sort of last-minute deal-making that Congress made a habit of producing. Compromise as capitulation was a notion within conservative circles before Trump, but he seized the idea and turned it into gospel truth. Even being seen with a member of the opposite party has become enough to draw a Republican incumbent a primary challenge from someone in their home state, insisting that the elected official has “gone Washington” or “come down with Potomac fever” or some other claptrap like that.

Rubin and Cillizza both make excellent points here.

Senator McCain’s passing and the ceremony surrounding what will ultimately be his burial on Sunday on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis are receiving coverage that is ordinarily reserved for the death of a President, an office that McCain tried to run for twice only to see his chances cut short by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who will, fittingly, delivery eulogies at the service to be held Saturday at Washington National Cathedral that will be held the day after McCain lies in repose under the dome of the Capitol Building where he worked from 1982 until his death last Saturday. For much of that time, McCain found a way to develop friendships across the aisle with men like Ted Kennedy, who died nine years to the day before McCain from the same form of cancer, and the former Vice-President, whose son died from that cancer three years ago. That started in an era when such cross-aisle friendships were common in the House and the Senate, but that’s changed. Biden himself spoke to that in the eulogy when he related a story about how both he and McCain were approached by the leadership of their respective party caucuses and told that it “didn’t look good” that they were seen on the floor of the Senate sitting together and being friendly. At that point, it was apparent that American politics was entering a different, and darker age. And we find ourselves there today.

Despite this pessimism, and the obvious issues created by the current occupant of the Oval Office and his enablers on Capitol Hill and in the political culture in general, Biden’s eulogy and the life of John McCain stand as a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to hate each other over what are often minor political disagreements. We don’t have to lock ourselves into ideological bubbles where we get our news, analysis, and opinion only from sources that reinforce what we believe in. And we don’t have to accept binary choices from the two major parties just because certain candidates were able to rack up the support of party insiders to win a nomination or an election.

Much like Cillizza, I’m not naive enough to believe that John McCain’s, Biden’s eulogy yesterday, or the eulogies that will be delivered tomorrow by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are going to immediately change our politics, our political culture, or our culture generally. It took a long time for the factors that have led us to where we are today to have their impact, and it’s going to take time and willingness on the part of he American people to dig ourselves out of the situation we find ourselves in. However, as I said on the day that President Trump was inaugurated, I’m still confident that we’ll find a way out of this. It won’t be easy because, as Cillizza notes, ” It’s easier to retreat into partisan camps and surround yourself with people, TV talkers and the like who tell you that you’re right (about everything) and those who disagree with you are your enemies, villains to be vanquished.” However, we’ve survived worse than this and I think we’ll survive this too. In any case, as I’ve said previously, we will either find a way out of it, or we will sink deeper into the abyss.


FILED UNDER: Congress, Political Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Gustopher says:

    It’s easier to retreat into partisan camps and surround yourself with people, TV talkers and the like who tell you that you’re right (about everything) and those who disagree with you are your enemies, villains to be vanquished.

    But, what if the other party is filled with your enemies, and they really are villains to be vanquished?

    I don’t claim to be right about everything, and I may not be right about most things.

    And, yes, decorum and respect have broken down. I would go back to the Hastert Rule of molesting teenage boys and passing legislation only if it can get majority Republican support as the start of this, which then morphed into passing bills with as little minority support as possible.

    But then there is Trumpism, which is its own problem, separate from the previous crisis of partisanship, although largely fueled by it. A racist ideology with few goals beyond that, a bunch of far right fellow travelers who have figured out they can set the rest of the agenda, a corrupt President, and a Republican Congress defending him to the end so long as they can get their tax cuts.

    These people are the enemies, and they are the villains, and they do need to be vanquished. And not just the racist core of Trumpism, but the people who embrace that racist core and welcome it for their own interests.

    We aren’t just burying John McCain, we are burying the last vestiges of bipartisanship on the right.

  2. Grewgills says:

    In any case, as I’ve said previously, we will either find a way out of it, or we will sink deeper into the abyss.

    In the short term I think we will sink deeper into this political abyss. Ultimately we will come out the other side, but our standing in the world will be remarkably diminished for it.

  3. SenyorDave says:

    @Gustopher: But, what if the other party is filled with your enemies, and they really are villains to be vanquished?

    How do you compromise with a party that has spent the last few decades honing their dog-whistling skills, and now finds that their president doesn’t even use the dog whistle? FFS, his senior advisor of choice was Steve Bannon, an unrepentant white supremacist! I’m praying that Trump and a whole boatload of his senior people go down hard. His base will never give up on him and they are unsavable, but maybe they will crawl back under their rocks and disappear (maybe they will be like cicadas and reappear in 17 years).

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    There will be no peace till the war is won or lost. There never is.

  5. Paine says:

    Eight years of Obama and Fox News made conservatives crazy.

    Every time I see Trump give on of his rallies I look upon the people standing behind him with utter contempt. Trump’s a scumbag, given. But people have a choice about who they admire and who they follow. I had some difference with Obama has to policy but he was a stand-up guy who carried himself with dignity. He was a leader I respected and was willing to follow. I don’t have the slightest bit of respect for the millions of people out there who embrace Trump. I have nothing in common with those people and have no desire to seek common ground with them.

    So… my days of being a kumbaya democrat are over. We need to do everything we can do defeat these people. Full stop. They may have won this battle but they kicked off a war that will end poorly for them.

  6. Jax says:

    @Paine: 22 years of Fox News, and then Obama being elected made conservatives crazy. Fox News primed the pump, a black man being elected lit the fuse. None of them will admit this, because OF COURSE they are not racist. I mean, they have black friends!! :-/

    I hear ya on not being a Kumbaya Democrat anymore. I want him gone, my preferred method of removal would be voting his sorry ass out and seeing him taken away in handcuffs right after inauguration, and I don’t have a lot of patience left with their “Well, we just wanted someone who would shake things up, and look, the stock market is great!” They will forgive him for all of his social media missteps, his collusion with Russians, obstruction of justice, his porn star/playboy model philandering and payoffs, as long as that stock market stays up. The United States could be burning to the ground, but as long as the Dow Jones stays up, we’re good!

    Frustrating to see it in people I know and generally like in real life.

  7. Leonard says:

    I’d accept that speech from anyone but Joe Biden. Everything vulgar, race-baiting, stupid, and nasty about Trump is just Biden 2.0.

  8. An Interested Party says:

    I’d accept that speech from anyone but Joe Biden. Everything vulgar, race-baiting, stupid, and nasty about Trump is just Biden 2.0.

    Oh? How’s that?

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @An Interested Party:
    Betcha five bucks he’s got nothing.

  10. matt bernius says:

    @An Interested Party & @Michael Reynolds:
    I am curious to see if he’s going after Biden from the usual right wing talk radio side or if it’s from the Jacobian far-left perspective.

    Can’t say I agree with either. But hell, people out there are still willing to argue that “both sides are the same.” So it could be interesting.

  11. Leonard says:


  12. matt bernius says:



    This might be my favorite response of all times*… both in terms of its slang connotation and being a near perfect political cipher.

    Bravo sir.


    * – To be fair, I have been tippling.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    Yep. You got nothing. You people never do.

  14. Leonard says:

    Bork, putting y’all back in chains, “this is a big f*cking deal”… Tehere’s a whole lot of Bidem material out there. Michael had the right idea at first. Admitting you’re at war and you don’t care about your actions is a better approach with Biden than defending him.

  15. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Jax: BTW, the DJIA is up by 0.26 % over the last six months. From that perspective the stock market has stalled.
    (based on 30 day moving average)

  16. An Interested Party says:


    BWHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!! That is what makes Biden “vulgar, race-baiting, stupid, and nasty”? Oh sweetie, you need to try harder…Biden has often stuck his foot in his mouth but that doesn’t put him in Trump’s disgusting league, not by a long shot…let us know when Biden ever put a racist troll like Stephen Miller in charge of immigration policy or when he ever said that included among white supremacists are some very fine people or when he ever accused most Mexican immigrants of being rapists and criminals or referred to Haiti and African countries as shithole countries…we’ll all wait for you to come up with something…

  17. de stijl says:

    Kumbaya Democrat

    There needs to be Kumbaya Democrats. You can’t just be against something; you have to be for something as well. Graciousness pays benefits.

    I understand the impulse to go total aggro, but you have to have a goal in mind where neighbor doesn’t despise neighbor because of who they vote for. Full on, total political war will kill us a nation. We have to be decent.

  18. de stijl says:

    @matt bernius:

    Tipple away!

    (As long as you’re not driving.)

  19. de stijl says:




  20. Jax says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: I know. My real life friends are still pretzeling themselves trying to reconcile all that, and then “the economy is so bad we can’t pay people a cost of living increase”. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Leonard: Excuse you.

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @One American: This is true. That’s why they have all left the Republican Party.

  23. george says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Wars involving people’s philosophies/values tend to take many generations – usually three generations have to die for the philosophy to die. And often longer, there have been philosophical wars that lasted centuries (Catholic vs Protestants, both vs Judaism, Sunni vs Shiite, monarchism vs democracy).

    We’re in for a very long haul if this really is a war of values. I’m not so sure, I think the Internet magnifies the most extreme elements, making them appear a much larger proportion of the population than they really are. Our society simply wouldn’t function if we were as divided as the Internet makes us seem – families and businesses would simply tear themselves apart, there’d be large scale violence between factions . There’s several thousand years of history of that happening when philosophical/values, the category to which religion and national identity belong, come into conflict. But the violent conflicts we see, mainly atifa vs alt-right, involve less than one in a hundred thousand Americans. That’s a statistical blip, a very long way from war.

    Which is why I think it won’t last; the far-right (I hate to call them conservative, because no where else in the world would what they want be called conservative, conservatives want to keep what’s there, to the point where the Canadian conservative governments wanted to preserve public healthcare and abortion laws because what conservatives do is preserve existing structures) is going to fade away with their generation, because most people don’t feel strongly enough about it to identify with it, so unlike strongly felt conflicts, which are passed on through generations, most young people aren’t picking it up, because most parents don’t think its important.

  24. OzarkHillbilly says:


    the far-right …………….. is going to fade away with their generation, because most people don’t feel strongly enough about it to identify with it, so unlike strongly felt conflicts, which are passed on through generations, most young people aren’t picking it up, because most parents don’t think its important.

    The flaw in your reasoning is that for all too many of the far right (most? all??) the Civil War never ended. That conflict has been ongoing (in their minds and to greater and lesser extents in real life) for over 150 years. It has been getting passed down thru the generations and continues to be as evidenced by the overly testosteroned young men I see driving around out here with Confederate flags waving off the back of their pick ups.

  25. Leonard says:

    @de stijl: Bork -> Garland

  26. george says:


    You may be right, I haven’t been in the deep south. But in that case its another example of the more common moral/value conflict, which we can expect to continue on for centuries – if Reynolds is correct and this is a war, then its going to last a very long time. Trying to stamp out different values tends to extend them (there’s overwhelming historical evidence of this over the last two millennia), perhaps because strong emotions drive out thought. If educating a new generation differently doesn’t do it, then we’re in it for the long haul, because trying to get rid of them with violence has a very long history of just making them stronger and more extreme.

  27. teve tory says:

    @Leonard: Bork got a hearing and a vote. You don’t seem to know or understand very much.

  28. teve tory says:
  29. Leonard says:

    @teve tory: I know the difference between = and ->. One means is the same, the other means leads to.

  30. Monala says:

    @Leonard: helping millions gain access to health care IS a big f*cking deal. Are you offended by the swear word, or by the idea of people gaining access to health care?

  31. Leonard says:
  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @SenyorDave: Unfortunately, the same way that side compromises with a party full of socialists who hate this country and want to destroy it–you don’t. Maybe we shoulda burned the whole thing down when we had a chance in the 60s–18s and 19s. Be careful before you decide to cobble this thing back together as it is again.

  33. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @george: I’m interested in whether you have statistical evidence for 3 generations–not a challenge, understand, I’d be interested in how 3 generations is the marker. I ask because the Old Testament opines that “the sins of the fathers are visited on thee sons to the fifth generation.” I had the chance to informally measure attitudes across generations while I was teaching in Korea as my student cohort ran in age from 5 to 70-some years old. Measuring attitudes of Koreans about Japan and NK, my conclusion was that the grandchildren of my university students would be the first generation of Koreans who would be able to see either country outside of the contexts of the Japanese “Protectorate” and the Korean War. It has to do with the unease that some Koreans and euigooks had with Ahn Cheol-su paying his respects at the graves of Syngman Rhee, Generals Park and Chun Do-hwan, and other leaders from the right during his Presidential campaign. Anh asserted that all of the various leaders needed to be honored for their contributions to what Korea has become despite whatever excesses their leadership may have involved. That sentiment was greeted by “I/my parents/wife/friends had people who they knew and loved arrested by these bastards.”

    It takes a long time to drop that kind of baggage and three generations seems to not be a long enough time for the carriers of the same to have gone on to their final reward, so I’m curious.

  34. george says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    No, the three generations is just a saying I’ve heard many times – basically I think it means it takes at least that long for everyone who was taught a way of thinking to die, taking that way of thinking with them.

    I hadn’t heard the Old Testament’s fifth generation, but its probably more realistic (and/or pessimistic) in how ideas get passed down through generations. You’re clearly right that three generations, which assumes ideas suddenly stop being passed down, is unrealistic.

  35. Leonard says:

    @TM01: They call Trump a creep and a liar because he’s their opponent. But dont’ forget he is a creep and a liar.

  36. Leonard says:

    Biden and Trump are both populists because they’re not smartenough to be intellectuals. They both think if they hang around uneducated people and “talk plain” no one will notice.

  37. An Interested Party says:

    One means is the same, the other means leads to.

    So…Bork getting a hearing and a vote leads to Garland getting neither? That’s some great…”logic” you use there…and your link to what Biden said means nothing…no Democratic Congress actually did to a Republican president what McConnell did to Obama…nice try, though…some more of that “logic” I guess…

    @TM01: That’s the best you can do? The argument a child would use, “But mommy, look what he did!” You’re as pathetic as the trash that you support…

    Biden and Trump are both populists because they’re not smartenough to be intellectuals.

    Still trying (and failing) to make that connection, huh? More of that “logic”…

  38. MBunge says:

    There are none so blind as those who will not see.

    There are many good reasons to criticize and oppose Donald Trump. Those reasons have nothing to do with why Mataconis and most around here are against him. It’s not about truth or morality or ethics or humanity or even the best interests of the country. None of those things matter to them. If they did, then their criticism and opposition to Trump would not be so infantile and lacking in any meaningful understanding.

    The “normal” alternative to Donald Trump in 2016 was not only probably the second most unpopular candidate in major party history, and not only someone who spent much of the campaign being investigated by the FBI for possible criminal prosecution, but was also someone married to an accused rapist. That was the “normal” alternative.

    The election of Donald Trump is not the cause of abnormality in American politics. It’s the result of it. Acknowledging that would require admitting wrong, accepting responsibility, and action to change. It’s much easier to blame Trump.


  39. An Interested Party says:

    It’s not about truth or morality or ethics or humanity or even the best interests of the country. None of those things matter to them.

    Bullshit…of course it is all about those things…truth, Trump lies almost as often as he breathes, all politicians lie, but he takes it to an entirely new level…morality, Trump has cheated on all three of his wives and has paid off sex partners in an attempt to keep his affairs secret…ethics, how many people who have worked for Trump have been stiffed by him, how often has he violated the Emoluments Clause…humanity, look no further than his brutal treatment of John McCain, both in McCain’s life and in his death…and as far as the best interests of the country are concerned, he is working to destroy our country’s relationships with our allies that have served us and them well for decades…

    You can continue to kiss Trump’s ass to your heart’s content, but you will never gain any legitimacy, here or anywhere else…your defense of this trash is as disgusting as your obsequiousness towards him…obviously you are emulating how he treats Vladimir Putin…

  40. Leonard says:

    @An Interested Party: You misunderstood Mike’s comment. He said that those things he listed are good reasons for criticizing Trump but the commenters on this site call him a Nazi and orange and a Russia-lover.

  41. An Interested Party says:

    @Leonard: Oh, I totally understood his comment and I call bullshit on it, as plenty of Trump’s detractors around here have criticized him for those things…as for the three things you brought up…Nazi, well he certainly thinks that some white supremacists are fine people and he does seem to like all the trappings of a dictator…orange, well look at him with his fake tan and cotton candy hair, and to think that he has the nerve to criticize anyone else’s appearance…Russia-lover, he is awfully nice to Putin (why?) and has time has gone on, we’ve seen more and more connections between his campaign and Russia…