Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: The Passing of John McCain

Posted on September 13, 2018

Transcript – Floor Speech on Passing of John McCain 

September 13, 2018


Mr. President, I am glad I traveled to Phoenix Thursday for John McCain’s funeral. You learn a lot more about a U.S. Senator in his hometown than you do here in Washington, DC. What was clear in Phoenix last Thursday was that John McCain and the State of Arizona were well connected with one another.

Frankly, I had wondered about that because it is a long way to Phoenix. It is a 5-hour flight. Sometimes John took a connecting flight. He must have taken hundreds of trips around the world. So I wondered if he really was connected to the State the same as he was to Senate.

But I shouldn’t have had any doubt about that because you are not going to get elected six times in a primary and then six times in a general election, in a State where both primary and general elections are competitive, without being well connected to your State, and he obviously was. Listening to those who remembered John in Phoenix, it was clear that John McCain kept his feet on the ground in Arizona.

Grant Woods, the former attorney general, spoke first. He was very good. He captured John perfectly. He had been his chief of staff. He had been the attorney general of Arizona. In his remarks, he captured John’s erratic driving and his mercurial personality. Tommy Espinoza, a friend of Senator McCain, helped us understand, again, how John thought his job was to serve everybody, whether they were Republicans, Democrats, or from whatever walk of life. We all knew John McCain was a sports nut, and I don’t guess that any of us were surprised to see Larry Fitzgerald speak, who is entering his 15th year in the National Football League. I was impressed when Larry Fitzgerald talked about having so much respect for John McCain that he—Larry Fitzgerald—flew to Hanoi, went to the lake where McCain crashed his plane, and then went to the cell in Hanoi where he spent nearly 6 years.

Joe Biden brought the only touch of Washington, DC, to Phoenix last Thursday, but it really wasn’t that big of a touch because what Joe mainly talked about was his friendship with John McCain and their relationships, which all of us know is the heart and soul of the Senate. The service in the big Baptist church, concluding with Frank Sinatra singing ‘‘My Way,’’ was a reminder that the service was, well, pure John McCain.

Those of us who eulogized John are honest enough to say that he was an equal-opportunity insulter. He took the head off of almost every one of us in the Senate at one time or another. He was filled with passion for every issue he touched, and that often led to explosions. After the explosions and after the inevitable apologies, which usually didn’t take very long, he would say: I never expected to be elected Mr. Congeniality. I chalked up those explosions—and I think almost all of us did—to those 6 years of captivity in Hanoi. All of us wondered and admired how someone who suffered that much pain in those circumstances for the rest of his life could lead such a productive life and be so useful to our country.

John brought the same passion and generosity of spirit that he had for his issues to his friendships—and I was glad to be included as one of those— and the extent of that generosity of spirit to people he didn’t know, whom he had just met in many walks of life. I can remember when he was campaigning in Tennessee with me. He was spending the night with me at our home in East Tennessee. It was late when we got there, 10:30 or 11. My son had a group of national songwriters who were writing what they all hoped to be the next No. 1 hit. Of course, they were eager for John to hear their No. 1 hit. He stopped, and he listened. He spent some time with them. One of them said to me last week how thrilled he still is that he got to meet John McCain.

The next morning, Eugene Caylor, who is a craftsman from Townsend, TN, was coming to work, and John was leaving. It turns out that Eugene had been in Vietnam when John had been there. So they talked about that for a few minutes. Eugene told me this past week how much he valued those few minutes with John McCain.

John McCain came to the Senate in 1976 or so. John was then a Senate liaison. He got his hair cut by Mario D’Angelo, who is still here cutting hair. I saw Mario the other day. He has been cutting my hair over a long period of time, as well as ORRIN HATCH’s and many of us. Mario said that about the time Senator McCain was running for President, he was on television, sitting there with his wife Cindy, and some interviewer asked him if he had any friends in the Senate. He thought for a moment, and finally Cindy said: Well, there is Mario. And McCain said: Mario the butcher; he is responsible for all these scars on my face.

Last week, after John McCain’s death, Mario laughed and said: That is what he always called me, ‘‘the butcher,’’ but he was my buddy. When he found out I was going to Phoenix, he said: Say a big good-bye to my buddy John McCain. That is how Mario felt, and that is how many, many of us felt. We have heard so much said about Senator McCain during the last week that one would wonder if there was anything left to say.

What I want to say is not something different, but I would like to emphasize something, and that is the commitment Senator John McCain had to the Senate as an institution. His devotion to the Senate as an institution is, by far, not his most newsworthy accomplishment, but it underlays many of his most important decisions. He said he voted against the ObamaCare repeal because it didn’t go through the regular order, the kind of order an institution ought to have. The last chapter of one of his books is entitled ‘‘The Regular Order.’’

In 2005, when Democrats balked at George W. Bush’s judicial nominees— Republicans were seeking to change the very nature of the Senate by turning it into a majoritarian institution— Senator McCain worked with Republicans and Democrats in sort of a gang, as they called it, to try to make sure that didn’t happen. He wanted to preserve the Senate as an institution.

I worked with him many, many hours in 2011, 2012, and 2013 on the same sort of thing. We saw the difficulty that President Obama at that time had in getting some of his nominations confirmed. So we worked to change the Senate rules so that President Obama and subsequent presidents could get their nominees approved in a reasonable time.

We worked with Senator Carl Levin, for example, who insisted that we needed to be successful or else we would have one of those nuclear explosions that would change the nature of the Senate and make it a majoritarian institution that ran roughshod over the minority. Senator Levin said at the time—with which Senator McCain and I both agreed—that a Senate in which the majority can change the rules at any time is a Senate without any rules. What Senator Levin might also have said is that the Senate is a weaker institution, deserving less respect. In a speech at Morristown, NJ, a few years ago, the late Justice Scalia said that ‘‘the reason America’s basic freedom has endured for 200 years is not the amendments to the Constitution but the Constitution itself.’’

Justice Scalia said this: “Every tin horn dictator in the world today, every president for life, has a Bill of Rights. That’s not what makes us free; if it did, you would rather live in Zimbabwe. But you wouldn’t want to live in most countries in the world that have a Bill of Rights. What has made us free is our Constitution.” Think of the word ‘‘constitution.’’ It means structure. Scalia continued: “That’s why America’s framers debated . . . the structure of the federal government. The genius of the American constitutional system is the dispersal of power. Once power is centralized in one person, or one part of government, a Bill of Rights is just words on paper.

John McCain understood that. He sensed that a nation as fragmented as ours has become in this internet democracy in which we live today especially needs strong institutions. The most important institution designed to reach a consensus, a compromise, an agreement, the kind of agreement most Americans will support and the kind of agreement that will last a long time— the institution most suited to do that is the U.S. Senate. That is our job, just as it is our job to weigh in against the excesses of the popular will and the excesses of the Chief Executive.

If we don’t do our jobs, as Justice Scalia said, we are risking creating in our country an authoritarian government. The U.S. Senate is a representative body, so some Senators stand out above others. There is usually one Senator who stands out over all the other Senators, and, for the last few years, that has been John McCain.

For me, one of the most enduring contributions John McCain made to this institution was his continuous efforts to help strengthen the Senate as an institution, to see to it that we do our jobs, providing checks against the excesses of the popular will, excesses of the Executive, and that we work hard to find the kind of compromise and consensus and agreement that most Americans can support and that can last for a long time. I yield the floor.