He told fellow senators, essentially, to get over themselves and get serious.
There has been so much manufactured drama in politics and political punditry for so long now, it’s refreshing when events that happen in real time for Americans to witness firsthand are naturally dramatic and actually inspiring. Sen. John McCain’s return to DC from surgery following a brain cancer diagnosis, his appearance coming just in time to cast the pivotal vote on a measure to continue debate on repealing and replacing Obamacare, restored maturity to the floor of the Senate. And much needed gravity.
Here’s what he said, in full.
“I’ve known and admired men and women in the Senate who played much more than a small role in our history, true statesmen, giants of American politics. They came from both parties, and from various backgrounds. Their ambitions were frequently in conflict. They held different views on the issues of the day. And they often had very serious disagreements about how best to serve the national interest.
“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 – not just our debates, but the exercise of all our responsibilities – authorizing government policies, appropriating the funds to implement them, exercising our advice and consent role – are often lively and interesting. They can be sincere and principled. But they 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. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.
“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.’ Even when we must give a little to get a little. Even when our efforts manage just three yards and a cloud of dust, while critics on both sides denounce us for timidity, for our failure to ‘triumph.’
“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.
“Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. That’s an approach that’s been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires.
“We’re getting nothing done.
Right. Thank you for stating that so starkly and honestly. Each election cycle, general or mid-term, national or local, brings another round of promises to change things that never change. McCain has been in government long enough to know that and see the best and worst of it all. And he delivered a ‘come to Jesus moment’ to his colleagues, a ‘for crying out loud’ plea to return to civility and honor and statesmanship.
That was so needed, even though it didn’t seem to make a difference, in the end, since the repeal failed. McCain’s speech was ennobling, it was heard, written into the record, and noted by many people and commentators looking for leadership.
Sen. John McCain on Tuesday in the Senate gave one of the great speeches of American history. Its content was an almost perfect distillation of the career-long themes of this remarkable, infuriating, courageous, temperamental, wise, headstrong, indefatigable patriot.
McCain has always seemed to operate according to an internal logical consistency whose existence few could doubt but even fewer could fully fathom. The logic’s premises all seem to reside in a five-dimensional Rubik’s Cube, its colored tiles always shifting around, inside McCain’s mind and psyche.
What is discernible in this enigma, indeed obvious, is that the logic’s lodestar, the lodestar of McCain’s very existence, is an almost heart-breakingly deep love of his particular country – not because it is his country, but because it is a noble one…
But this speech, this raw but contemplative message to colleagues and countrymen, contained the clearest and most accessible exposition of McCainism imaginable.
It is a “privilege,” he said, “to play a small role in the history of the country I love.” He paid homage to senators “who played much more than a small role in our history, true statesmen, giants of American politics.”
Yes. Focus on statesmanship. This was a ‘civic homily’, says Quin Hillyer.
The final passages of McCain’s civic homily came straight from the very soul of a man who, though self-admittedly flawed, has served this nation with a steadfastness and grit beyond most imagining. He served it because, with every fiber of his being, he believes it, believes us, to be morally worthy of selfless service.
He is right about that, too. To wit:
“America has made a greater contribution than any other nation to an international order that has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have been the greatest example, the greatest supporter and the greatest defender of that order. We aren’t afraid. We don’t covet other people’s land and wealth. We don’t hide behind walls. We breach them. We are a blessing to humanity.”
Yes, we Americans are a blessing to humanity, no matter how many academics and agitators mendaciously say the opposite. And for some 60 adult years of sharp-elbowed, sharp-tongued dedication to what he likes to call “a cause greater than self,” John McCain has been a sometimes cantankerous, more-often captivating, blessing to America – and thus a blessing to a whole world made better by America’s presence in it.
And he’s not finished serving — no, not yet.
Hopefully, he has inspired many colleagues in the Senate to start.