The Se­nate way

McCain cap­tures Amer­i­can spirit in floor speech

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Greg Har­ton Greg Har­ton is edi­to­rial page ed­i­tor for the North­west Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. Con­tact him by email at ghar­ton@nwadg.com or on Twit-

The only in­ter­ac­tion I’ve ever had with John McCain came in the late 1990s, when the Ari­zona sen­a­tor raised ob­jec­tions to de­vel­op­ment of a new air­port in a lit­tle place named High­fill in Arkansas.

His re­quest for a Gen­eral Ac­count­ing Of­fice in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Pres­i­dent Clin­ton-era ap­provals from the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion caused a few headaches for the movers and shak­ers in North­west Arkansas try­ing to build what’s now known as the North­west Arkansas Re­gional Air­port. McCain ques­tioned some of the fed­eral fund­ing de­ci­sions, but the GAO re­port pro­vided lit­tle in the way of am­mu­ni­tion for those who won­dered how much in­flu­ence FOBs — Friends of Bill — had in get­ting an air­port ap­proved and funded in his home state.

Re­port­ing here, I never in­ter­viewed McCain him­self. The folks in Wash­ing­ton took care of that, but from that mo­ment for­ward I knew who he was. He’d been a U.S. sen­a­tor for more than a decade by that time.

McCain, now in of­fice for 30 years, was re­cently di­ag­nosed with a brain tu­mor, but he re­turned after treat­ment to the Se­nate floor for a re­cent vote to al­low de­bate on a re­place­ment for Oba­macare. After the vote, the Se­nate’s lead­er­ship carved out time for McCain to ad­dress his col­leagues. Still bruised on his face from ex­ploratory surgery, McCain seized an op­por­tu­nity to say what needs to be said to his fel­low sen­a­tors: Knock it off.

I’ll give a lot of my space today over to McCain be­cause what he said needs to be heard. The for­mer pris­oner of war gen­tly urged his 99 col­leagues to change their at­ti­tudes about al­ways want­ing a pure vic­tory over mem­bers from the other party, in essence by re­turn­ing to the de­lib­er­a­tive man­ner long the hall­mark of the U.S. sen­a­tors of the past, when dis­agree­ments could be just as strong as they are today.

“But they knew that how­ever sharp and heart­felt their dis­putes, how­ever keen their am­bi­tions, they had an obli­ga­tion to work col­lab­o­ra­tively to en­sure the Se­nate dis­charged its con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­i­ties ef­fec­tively. Our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are im­por­tant, vi­tally im­por­tant, to the con­tin­ued suc­cess of our Repub­lic. And our ar­cane rules and cus­toms are de­lib­er­ately in­tended to re­quire broad co­op­er­a­tion to func­tion well at all. The most revered mem­bers of this in­sti­tu­tion ac­cepted the ne­ces­sity of com­pro­mise in or­der to make in­cre­men­tal progress on solv­ing Amer­ica’s prob­lems and to de­fend her from her ad­ver­saries.

“That prin­ci­pled mind­set, and the ser­vice of our pre­de­ces­sors who pos­sessed it, come to mind when I hear the Se­nate re­ferred to as the world’s great­est de­lib­er­a­tive body. I’m not sure we can claim that dis­tinc­tion with a straight face today.

“I’m sure it wasn’t al­ways de­served in pre­vi­ous eras ei­ther. But I’m sure there have been times when it was, and I was priv­i­leged to wit­ness some of those oc­ca­sions.

“Our de­lib­er­a­tions today … are more par­ti­san, more tribal more of the time than any other time I re­mem­ber. Our de­lib­er­a­tions can still be im­por­tant and use­ful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been over­bur­dened by great­ness lately. And right now they aren’t pro­duc­ing much for the Amer­i­can peo­ple.

“Both sides have let this hap­pen. Let’s leave the his­tory of who shot first to the his­to­ri­ans. I sus­pect they’ll find we all con­spired in our de­cline – ei­ther by de­lib­er­ate ac­tions or ne­glect. We’ve all played some role in it.

“In­cre­men­tal progress, com­pro­mises that each side crit­i­cize but also ac­cept, just plain mud­dling through to chip away at prob­lems and keep our en­e­mies from do­ing their worst isn’t glam­orous or ex­cit­ing. It doesn’t feel like a po­lit­i­cal tri­umph. But it’s usu­ally the most we can ex­pect from our sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, op­er­at­ing in a coun­try as di­verse and quar­rel­some and free as ours.

“Con­sid­er­ing the in­jus­tice and cru­el­ties in­flicted by au­to­cratic gov­ern­ments, and how cor­rupt­ible hu­man na­ture can be, the prob­lem solv­ing our sys­tem does make pos­si­ble, the fit­ful progress it pro­duces, and the lib­erty and jus­tice it pre­serves, is a mag­nif­i­cent achieve­ment.

“Our sys­tem doesn’t de­pend on our no­bil­ity. It ac­counts for our im­per­fec­tions, and gives an or­der to our in­di­vid­ual striv­ings that has helped make ours the most pow­er­ful and pros­per­ous so­ci­ety on earth. It is our re­spon­si­bil­ity to pre­serve that, even when it re­quires us to do some­thing less sat­is­fy­ing than ‘win­ning.’”

•••

McCain, per­haps be­cause he faces a health chal­lenge with un­cer­tain prospects, ap­peared to rec­og­nize what some­times seems im­por­tant re­ally isn’t when viewed with per­spec­tive.

“I don’t think any of us feels very proud of our in­ca­pac­ity. Merely pre­vent­ing your po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents from do­ing what they want isn’t the most in­spir­ing work. There’s greater sat­is­fac­tion in re­spect­ing our dif­fer­ences, but not let­ting them pre­vent agree­ments that don’t re­quire aban­don­ment of core prin­ci­ples, agree­ments made in good faith that help im­prove lives and pro­tect the Amer­i­can peo­ple. …

“The suc­cess of the Se­nate is im­por­tant to the con­tin­ued suc­cess of Amer­ica. This coun­try — this big, bois­ter­ous, brawl­ing, in­tem­per­ate, rest­less, striv­ing, dar­ing, beau­ti­ful, boun­ti­ful, brave, good and mag­nif­i­cent coun­try — needs us to help it thrive. That re­spon­si­bil­ity is more im­por­tant than any of our per­sonal in­ter­ests or po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions.”

God­speed, Sen. McCain.

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