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ASU to create national library honoring legacy of Sen. John McCain

President Biden announces funding support for 22-acre Tempe project


A black and white photo of Sen. John McCain leaning on a column and looking to the side

John McCain represented Arizona for 35 years. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving two terms. He then moved to the U.S. Senate, succeeding Barry Goldwater, from 1987 until his death in 2018. Photo courtesy of the McCain family

September 28, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2023 year in review.

President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a major federal grant to the state of Arizona to help design and build a new McCain National Library at Arizona State University.

The McCain National Library will honor the life and legacy of the late John McCain, who represented Arizona first as a U.S. representative and then as a longtime U.S. senator and a Republican presidential nominee.

Joined by members of the McCain family at the Tempe Center for the Arts, Biden called the plans a fitting tribute to his good friend, longtime fellow member of Congress and American statesman. He described his 40-year-long friendship with McCain, which transcended their political differences and their sparring in the Senate.

“We were like two brothers, we argued like hell, really go at one another and then we’d go to lunch together,” he said. “We traveled the world together.”

He said they remained friends even as they were running against each other in 2008, when McCain was the Republican presidential candidate and Biden was Barack Obama’s running mate on the Democratic ticket. Biden told the audience Thursday that when visiting Vietnam recently, he thought about McCain, who was a prisoner of war for more than five years during the Vietnam War.

“I thought about how much America missed John right now, and needed John’s foresight and courage,” he said. “And now history has brought us to a new time of testing. Very few of us will ever be asked to endure what John McCain endured, but all of us are being asked right now: What will we do to ensure our democracy?”

Biden said that democracy means respecting the ideals of the Constitution.

“Institutions of democracy depend on the Constitution and our character — our character — and the habits of our hearts and our minds; institutions like the McCain Institute and the new McCain Library that will be built at Arizona State University with funding from the American Rescue Plan, which I signed into law when I came into office.”

The new 80,000-square-foot national library will include archives for McCain’s papers and materials from his decades of high-profile work in Arizona, Washington and around the globe while in office. A visitor’s center and an Arizona home for the Washington, D.C.-based McCain Institute are among other elements planned for the site, envisioned as a solutions center and gathering spot to learn more about leadership, democracy and national security.

“John McCain is an important symbol of American democracy, and he holds a special place of respect and appreciation in Arizona and with Arizona State University,” President Michael Crow said. “We will work with others around the country and in the community to take this unique portion of the ASU Tempe campus and create a place that honors his extraordinary life and legacy, serves the principles he devoted his life and career to, and carries that legacy forward for future generations to learn from.”

The project will rejuvenate an often-overlooked 22.5-acre part of ASU near Mill Avenue and Curry Road, across Tempe Town Lake and north of the university’s Tempe campus.

ASU has owned the site since 1980. Now home to the university’s community services building, the location by Papago Park offers elevated views of the nearby Rio Salado riverbed, Tempe Town Lake, the city of Tempe and the ASU campus.

Cindy McCain said the library will be the “beating heart and soul” to further the causes that her late husband believed in.

“John would have hated if we had made this occasion just about him, but instead he would have wanted to make it about what is most important — John’s constant mantra of service to a cause greater than one’s self-interest. And this will be embodied here within this project,” she said.

“From nurturing the flame of democracy, calling others to a cause of character-driven leadership, or championing the issues most important to Arizonans, his indomitable spirit will live on through the actions and the ideals that we will imbue here.”

McCain, in introducing Biden, said of the president’s friendship with her late husband: “The great causes that brought them together and were most important to our nation are shared in this venture.”

The university in the coming months will work with the McCain family, Gov. Katie Hobbs and Arizona community leaders to launch design and construction.

ASU already is home to the archive of the senator’s papers from his public career, a place where scholars, journalists, students and the public can study his work and life. As design and construction of the McCain National Library proceeds, ASU will identify complementary programs, uses and partners that can be further integrated into the site.

“John McCain is a national hero, an Arizona icon and an inspiration to Americans from all walks of life for his robust defense of democracy, his patriotism and love of country, and his commitment to service,” said Evelyn Farkas, executive director of the McCain Institute at ASU, the 10-year-old, nonpartisan organization focused on advancing the legacy and values of McCain.

“It is fitting to honor a statesman of Sen. McCain’s caliber with this federally funded library,” Farkas said. “The McCain Library will be an outstanding resource for the McCain Institute, Arizona State University and the wider Tempe community. We are proud to be a part of this effort.”

The ASU Foundation will fundraise to support the development and enhancement of the site.

"John McCain was an exemplary leader who made a positive impact on many people nationally and within the ASU community” said ASU Foundation CEO Gretchen Buhlig. “Our development team will connect with donors who are passionate about the library’s offerings to serve ASU students and the greater community for years to come.”

While the location by Papago Park is of interest to park enthusiasts and those committed to the Rio Salado, the university is focused on the fact that Papago Park’s origins are of importance to Native American tribes.

“The Papago Park area has been home to Native American peoples for thousands of years,” said Jacob Moore, vice president and special advisor to President Crow on American Indian affairs. “ASU recognizes the special place of Papago Park in the culture and history of tribal communities in the Phoenix area. We intend fully to work with those communities to ensure that the planning and design process incorporates their interests and sensitivities and honors those lands as Native American lands.” 

The schedule and timeline for planning and development for the ASU project has not been established.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

McCain represented Arizona for 35 years. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving two terms. He then moved to the U.S. Senate, succeeding Barry Goldwater, from 1987 until his death in 2018. McCain was the Republican nominee for president of the United States in 2008.

Following his death, McCain lay in state in both the Arizona State Capitol and the U.S. Capitol, and his funeral was televised from Washington National Cathedral with former presidents in attendance.

“So much can be said about Sen. McCain and his stalwart attitude and commitment to doing what was right, no matter how hard it was,” Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs said. “... Stories of his bold defense of Americans’ rights both at home and abroad have become a pillar of what it means to be an Arizonan and of what it means to be an American.

“With today’s announcement of the McCain Library, they will become so much more than just stories.”

Biden said that because of students like those at ASU, he remains optimistic about the future of the country.

“The young people — 100,000 students at this university and all across America — they are the most gifted, the most tolerant, the most talented and the best-educated generation in American history. It’s your generation that will answer the questions for America — who are we? What doe we stand for? What do we believe? What will we be?

“It’s not your burden alone, but your generation will not be ignored, will not be shunned, will not be silent.”

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