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Nelson on McCain: ‘He was a fighter and he was funny, too’

The Florida Democrat warmly remembers his colleague.
John McCain in Florida during the 2008 campaign (Associated Press)
John McCain in Florida during the 2008 campaign (Associated Press)
Published Aug. 28, 2018

WASHINGTON – "We lost a colleague, we lost a friend, the country lost a true public servant," Sen. Bill Nelson said Tuesday of John McCain.

Full speech:

Mr. President, when you walk by Senator McCain's desk and you see the black drape and the bowl of white roses, it really underscores the loss. We lost a colleague, we lost a friend, the country lost a true public servant.

After the stories that you've heard of him being shot down of spending all of those years in the Hanoi Hilton, beaten nearly to death when he was fished out of the lake in downtown Hanoi, he continued to serve his country in the Navy, in Congress, in this Senate, and, of course, as the party's nominee for president.

His call to serve, his sense of duty and honor is the legacy of John McCain. He's an example for all of us. He was a fighter and he was funny too.

Maybe it was the years in prison or the longtime of military service or the sometimes tense humor of the fighter pilots, maybe it was that legacy of his family in the military, but he knew in his soul how special the United States was and what the United States could do for its people and for the world.

Sometimes we forget the stories of the excruciating pain that Senator McCain went through as a P.O.W. In 2000, David Foster Wallace in Rolling Stone magazine wrote, and I want to give you my reciting that article some of the graphic detail after he had been nearly beaten to death and his weight had gone down to 100 pounds, so the commander at the prison camp, when they find out that his father was a four star admiral and his grandfather was a four star admiral, they decided they were going to offer him early release.

And this is what the writer writes: "McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand refused the U.S. Code of military conduct for prisoners of war said that P.O.W.'s had to be released in the order that they were captured and there were others who had been at that prison a longer time and McCain refused to violate that code. The commandant of that prison, not pleased, right in the office where he had brought McCain to tell him that he was going to be released, the commandant ordered his guards to break his ribs, re-break his arm, knock his teeth out, and McCain still refused to leave without the other P.O.W.'s.

"And so then he spent four more years in the prison like this, much of the time in solitary in the dark, in a closet-sized box called the punishment cell. Now, maybe some of you all have heard this before.

"There's certainly been a lot of profiles on John McCain, but try to imagine the moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine if it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interests would have cried out to you in that moment and all the ways you could rationalize accepting that prison commandant's offer.

"Can you hear it? If so, would you refuse to go? You simply can't know for sure. None of us can. It's hard to even imagine the pain and the fear in that moment much less how you react." That was written 18 years ago about John.

And so in that moment you could summarize his courage, his strength, his will to overcome – but here in the Senate we saw a leader who thought that public service was a noble calling, a leader who always tried to do the right thing, who always put the people of his country ahead of himself. An individual who always believed that we, as Americans, can subscribe to a cause greater than ourselves. America is certainly going to miss John McCain.

For this senator it was certainly a privilege, for Grace as well, to know the McCains, and to look up to him as a role model, not only for this senator, but for the entire country.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.