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Commencement Address at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

June 18, 2007

Thank you, Admiral Stewart, Secretary Peters, Administrator Connaughton, faculty, families and distinguished guests, and thank you United States Merchant Marine Academy Class of 2007 for your welcome and for your kind invitation to give this year's commencement address. This is quite a privilege for someone who graduated fifth from the bottom in the United States Naval Academy Class of 1958. Opportunities like this always reaffirm my long held faith that in America anything is possible.

If my old company officer at the Academy were here, whose affection for midshipmen was sorely tested by my less than exemplary behavior, I fear he wouldn't appreciate your generosity as much as I do.

I want to join in the chorus of congratulations to the Class of 2007. This is a day to bask in congratulations and praise. You've earned it. All of you have succeeded in a demanding course of instruction. Life seems full of promise as is always the case when a passage in life is marked by significant accomplishment. Today, it might seem as if the world attends you.

But spare a moment for those who have truly attended you so well for so long, and whose pride in your accomplishments is even greater than your own your parents. When the world was looking elsewhere your parents' attention was one of life's certainties. So, as I commend the Class of 2007, I offer equal praise to your parents for the sacrifices they made for you, for their confidence in you and their love. More than any other influence in your lives they have helped make you the success you are today and might become tomorrow.

I thought I would show my gratitude for the privilege of addressing you by keeping my remarks brief. I suspect that some of you might have other plans for the day that you would prefer to commence sooner rather than later. I will try not to detain you too long.

It's difficult for commencement speakers to avoid resorting to clichs on these occasions. Thousands of such addresses are given every year, many by people with greater eloquence and more original minds than I possess. I'm always reminded of an observation about debates in the place I work, the U.S. Congress. "Everything that could be said about the subject has been said. But not everyone has said it."

What I thought I would talk about briefly today are the qualities of leadership. I'm sure all of you aspire to some form of leadership, not only those of you who will be commissioned for active duty in our Armed Forces -- a decision for which you have my respect and gratitude. And the rest of you, who will shortly be commissioned ensigns in the Naval Reserve, also have my and the country's gratitude. The Merchant Marine's support for United States military operations in war and peacetime is a valued contribution to the defense of our country, and I would like to believe that responsibilities to the welfare of our great nation entail the most important tests of leadership. But to distinguish yourself as a leader in any profession is a natural aspiration for people who work hard for their accomplishments, and I expect all of you will someday know bo th the burdens and rewards of such a station.

Leadership of any enterprise has many qualities, but the most important is to listen to your conscience, always accept your responsibilities, and trust the people under you with theirs. Many of us learn about the qualities of leadership from historical figures, famous leaders whose lives we have read about in books. But all of us learn more about those qualities from personal experience, from people close to us.

I've had the good fortune to have known many exemplary leaders in my time, and I'm familiar with their qualities. My father and grandfather were four star admirals and they possessed them in abundance. I had a teacher in High School who taught me as much about leadership and honor as I learned from any other person in my life. As you know, I had another career before politics. I was an officer in the U.S. Navy for twenty-two years, a naval aviator for most of those years. Many men I served with in the Navy, and the men I served with in Vietnam, were outstanding and inspiring leaders to me personally, and to the country.

Given that I am addressing graduates of a maritime academy, I thought I would briefly relate one influence in my life, a ship's captain, who taught me a great deal about leadership at a time in my life when I exhibited very little evidence of being interested in the subject. As I alluded to earlier, I was not a very impressive midshipman. I wasn't a very dedicated student, and I was, to say the least, a discipline problem. The problem was I didn't like discipline. Anyway, few, if any, of my superiors at the Academy saw in me the faintest hint of any leadership ability, except perhaps for a certain ability to persuade other midshipmen to accompany me on various adventures that were less than regulation, and to accumulate the many demerits I earned in punishment for my disobedience.

I was pretty surprised, then, to discover on my first-class cruise in the summer of 1957, aboard the U.S.S. Hunt, that a naval officer not related to me thought it was worth his while to try to teach me a few of the basic qualities of leadership.

The Hunt was an old destroyer, and it had seen better days. To my eyes, it should have been scrapped years before. But I was young and ignorant, and couldn't see the old ship's grace and seaworthiness. I assumed it was suitable only for the task of giving lowly midshipmen a rustic experience of life at sea.

We lived in cramped quarters in the aft of the ship. We kept the hatch open to catch the cool breeze blowing off the Chesapeake. Once the Hunt left the bay, the seas grew heavier and seawater washed in through the hatch. We lived in the pooled water for several days. The rough seas sent many of us running for the lee side. We had restricted water hours on the cruise. There was only enough water to allow us to drink from the ship's water fountains during one three hour period a day. We took saltwater showers.

We spent a third of the cruise in the engineering plant. The boilers blew scorching hot air while we spent long hours in misery learning the mysteries of the ship's mechanics. That the ship sailed at all seemed to us a great testament to the mechanics mate's mastery of improvisation.

We spent another third of the cruise learning ship's navigation, and the last third on the bridge learning how to command a ship at sea.

The skipper was Lieutenant Commander Eugene Ferrell. He seemed to accord the Hunt affection far out of proportion to her virtues. More surprisingly, he seemed to have some affection for me. He expressed it in eccentric ways, but I sensed his respect for me was greater than I had lately been accustomed to receiving from officers.

I spent much of the cruise on the bridge, where the skipper would order me to take the conn. As you know, running a ship of that size is a real mental challenge, and I had little practical experience in the job. I made more than a few mistakes, and every time I screwed up, the skipper would explode, let loose an impressive blast of profanity, and order me off the bridge. But when I began to skulk off, he'd call me back, "get over here, mister, and take the conn." And then he would begin to explain more calmly what I had done wrong, and how the job was done properly. We would go along pleasantly until I committed my next unpardonable error, when he would unleash another string of salty oaths in despair over my unfitness for the service, only to beckon me back for one last chance to prove my self worthy of his fine ship.

It was a wonderful time. Commander Ferrell taught me leadership by trusting me with responsibility, and showing me how to shoulder it under pressure. I worked hard not to disappoint him, and I learned the job passably well.

Ferrell was a gifted ship handler. When we refueled or took on supplies at sea he would come alongside the other ship at two-thirds and sometimes full speed, much faster than the other ship. At precisely the right moment, he would throw the engines in reverse, and then ahead again at one-third speed. It was a beautiful thing to see when done right. I watched him perform it several times, and admired his serene confidence as he gave the orders that brought the rushing Hunt abruptly but gracefully into place, moving at exactly the same speed as her sister ship. A seaman would fire a gun that shot a line to our bow. Soon the two ships, several lines now holding them in harness, would sail the ocean together for a time, never touching but in perfect unison. It was a grand sight to behold.

One beautiful afternoon, the flagship of the division, flying the ensign of the commanding admiral, approached us for the purpose of replenishing the Hunt's stores. The skipper gave me the conn, and without a trace of apprehension ordered me to bring her alongside. He told me to bring her up slowly, but said nothing when I ordered "all engines ahead two-thirds." At precisely the right moment, I ordered, "all engines back full." A few moments later, again well timed, I ordered "all engines ahead one-third." Surprisingly, and to my great relief, the Hunt slipped gracefully into place.

Ferrell was proud of me, and I was much indebted to him. He had given me his trust, which is a precious thing, and I had avoided letting him down. After the ships' lines were secured, he sent a message to the Admiral on his flagship. "Midshipmen McCain has the conn." The Admiral dutifully informed the Academy superintendent and commended my performance, no doubt shocking the old man considerably.

Commander Ferrell's confidence in me gave me more confidence in myself, and greater assurance that I belonged at sea than I had ever experienced before. He was the man who taught me the job my father and grandfather had done. He gave me reason to love the work that they had loved. Debts such as that you incur for life. Leadership is about both shouldering and giving responsibility. Lieutenant Commander Eugene Ferrell taught me that, and I have never forgotten it.

My father, who was honored here at a Regimental Review, was a man with enormous responsibilities, which he never shirked. He was brave, and as loyal to the Navy and his country as any officer who ever held a command. He lived a challenging and dangerous life. He served in three wars, and in his last war, Vietnam, he commanded all U.S. forces in the Pacific, including those who fought in Vietnam. I am his oldest son and namesake, and I fought under his command.

For several years I was a prisoner of war in the enemy's capital, Hanoi. When the President of the United States and his advisors decided to try to shorten the war by bombing Hanoi, it was my father's duty to order it done.

The planes that flew to Hanoi on his orders were B-52s, the largest bombers in the Air Force. They could carry and deliver the biggest stick of bombs. They flew at very high altitudes, and unlike our Air Force today they did not have the technology to be very accurate in their targeting.

The pilots knew Americans were held captive very near their targets. So did the man who commanded them, my father. He knew where I was, and he loved me. He prayed on his knees every day for my safe return. Whenever he visited his soldiers in Vietnam, he would end his day by walking to the northern end of the base, and stand quietly alone looking toward the place where his son was held. But his conscience required him to do his duty, and his duty required him to risk his son's life. So he did.

That is a very hard decision for a father to make. Very few of us will ever have to face such a difficult choice. Even fewer of us would have the character to make the right decision. I doubt I would. But he did. And the memory of him, and the example he set for me helped to form my own conscience.

In prison I served with men of extraordinary character, honorable men, strong, principled, loyal, and compassionate. Better men than me, in more ways than I can number. They were often treated cruelly. For several years they were tortured. Some were beaten terribly and worse. Some were killed. Sometimes they were tortured for information that could be used to help our enemy, and sometimes for information that our captors could use against other prisoners. Most often, they were tortured to compel them to make statements criticizing our country, and the cause we had been asked to serve.

Occasionally, the torture would be briefly suspended, and the prisoners were encouraged to make a statement with promises that no one would hear what they said or know that they had abandoned their responsibilities and sacrificed their integrity. "Just say it, and we will spare you any more pain," they promised, "just say it, and no one will know of your dishonor." The men I had the honor of serving with always had the same response. I will know.

That is the sense of responsibility that makes you a good leader. That, my friends, is character. I hope it is your destiny as you become leaders, in whatever work you turn your hand to, to hear the voice in your own heart, when you face hard decisions, to hear it say to you, again and again, until it drowns out every other thought, I will know. I will know. I will know.

Thank you for the privilege of addressing you. Congratulations, good luck, fair winds and following seas.

John McCain, Commencement Address at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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