The Senate way
McCain captures American spirit in floor speech
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.