When John McCain was running for president in 2008, he often spoke warmly of his friendship with Hillary Rodham Clinton as an illustration of his ability to work across the political aisle. They had traveled the world together as fellow senators — from the Arctic to Estonia — developing a mutual respect that often seemed to transcend party squabbles.
At times, it almost seemed that they would have preferred squaring off against one another rather than Barack Obama. In the heat of the 2008 primary, Clinton argued that she and McCain had “a lifetime of experience” that they could bring to the White House, while Obama had “a speech” he delivered in 2002.
Six years later -- even with all the partisan bickering over the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi -- that warmth between McCain and the Clintons appears to have survived. It was evident at the opening session of the youth-focused conference known as the Clinton Global Initiative University on Friday night at Arizona State University.
The former secretary of State offered a brief introduction to the weekend-long conference before turning over the microphone to her husband, who moderated the first panel on “the age of participation.”
As former president Clinton introduced the panel, which featured McCain, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Saudi rights activist Manal al-Sharif, he described McCain as “a good friend of Hillary’s and mine, although we permit him to deny it at election time.”
Clinton said McCain, held for more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, was “absolutely, fundamentally pivotal to my ability as president to normalize our relations with Vietnam, to get an answer on what happened to the unaccounted-for prisoners of war, to help us to build a new and different world,” Clinton said. He noted that many of McCain's "dreams, like mine, are frustrated by what we see in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and in the streets in Ukraine.”
The Arizona Republican, in turn, complimented the former Democratic president for being “an example of continued service to the country,” particularly when he could be “back down in Arkansas relaxing, probably catching catfish or something.”
McCain also praised the former president’s intervention in Bosnia, stating that while the nation is not a “perfect place," it is "a country that has a chance for freedom.”
"Mr. President, I thank you for your leadership in two terms in office where you had to make tough decisions -- the most difficult that any commander-in-chief has had to make," McCain said. "And I think you made the right decisions."
Hillary Clinton, who is considering a run for president, sidestepped politics in her brief remarks before leaving the stage -- focusing instead on some of the projects of the 1,200 students who attended from around the world. She cited a number, from several young women working with juvenile offenders to rebuild New Orleans homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina to the first DJ to operate solely using solar power.
While the conference has taken place each year since 2008, Hillary Clinton’s presence before the youthful audience -- composed of the sorts of engaged young activists who might volunteer in a future presidential campaign -- was a reminder of how her family’s foundation work could ultimately align with her political goals.
The “age of participation” theme in the opening panel, the former secretary of State told her audience, “may sound a little lofty, but I think it’s a critically important idea, because, after all, it calls on all of us to make our contributions...."
“We are going to make sure the millennial generation really is the participation generation,” she said.