Schumer Floor Remarks On The Passing Of Senator John McCainAugust 27, 2018
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer today spoke on the Senate floor [at approximately 4:19 p.m.] regarding the passing of Senator John McCain. Below are his remarks, which can also be viewed here:
On Saturday, August 25th, 2018, nine years to the day since the death of his friend Senator Kennedy, our friend and colleague Senator John S. McCain passed away.
Knowing his prognosis prepared us for the inevitable, but it has not softened the blow. We feel a great and inexpressible loss. I know I do. But I also feel lucky that I was able to call this great man a friend. Today, I’d like to share a few reflections, unorganized and incomplete though they may be. I suspect I will have more to say about Senator McCain with the benefit of a few days’ time.
Senator McCain and I didn’t get along very well at first. He was close to my mentor in the Senate, Ted Kennedy, but not so with me. I never served with Senator McCain on any committee, where you get to know other senators up close. Before our friendship, my closest brush with him was over a comment he made during a debate on defense policy where he said that Long Island was “regrettably part of the United States.”
I blasted John’s pejorative, which, of course, prompted him to reply from the Senate floor, “I’m sorry there’s at least one of my colleagues that can’t take a joke. I apologize if I offended him and hope that someday he will have a sense of humor.” Like many, I was a victim of Senator McCain’s acerbic wit.
Things began to defrost when we worked together during the Gang of Fourteen to avoid a change in the Senate rules during the Bush administration. A real, tight, and lasting friendship emerged from our collaboration on immigration reform.
We worked in close quarters for nearly a year, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, fine-tuning the only piece of major immigration reform to pass this chamber in decades. We visited the southern border together to assess the gaps in our security up close. We were doing what the Senate was supposed to do. Grappling with the biggest challenges. Working in a bipartisan way to find solutions. Overcoming obstacles that have so long bedeviled immigration reform and continue to stymie progress today.
We couldn’t have done it without John McCain. In recent days, many have reflected on his presidential campaigns and his military service – rightly so – but he was also a natural legislator. Able to seek common ground, sense where to go. Knew when to give a little, knew when not to. He had deep principle but he also knew how to craft a product that could actually pass. And the bill did, in the Senate, with large numbers of supporters from both parties. Had we passed immigration reform then, had the House done what the Senate did under John’s leadership, we wouldn’t be quarreling about immigration now, and our country would be a better, stronger, and more unified place.
We became so close over that year that John McCain started treating my staff like they were his own and me the same. We spoke so frequently, I knew John McCain’s cell number by heart, and I mistakenly repeated it during an interview when a reporter asked me how close we were. They had to edit it out to protect John’s privacy.
I can truly say that the time we spent together authoring and passing immigration reform were some of the proudest days in politics, for me and the rest of the Gang of Eight, in no small part because the success was shared with one great legislative leader – John McCain.
You know, he was so many things to so many people. He was a fierce friend to those who were lucky enough to have earned his friendship. You had to earn his friendship. A real thorn in the side of those who earned his scorn. Many know that. He was an unofficial ambassador for the United States, a comfort to our allies, and an unabashed champion for Western values. He was unafraid to take on presidents; he was unafraid to take on his own party. He was equal parts funny and furious, foul-mouthed and statesmanlike. He could put the temper in temperament. He was a brave and honest man. He was a patriot.
He was all of those things throughout his life, usually more than one at once, until his very last days.
Remarking on the character of America, Senator McCain said that we live in a “big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, brave, good, and magnificent country.” Truer words could not be said about the man himself. “Big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, brave, good, and magnificent.”
As you go through life, you meet a few truly great people – John McCain was one of them. His dedication to his country, and to the men and women who serve and protect it, was unsurpassed. Even in his last weeks, he was calling me every few days to make sure that our defense authorization bill was done, and done right. Not for him. Not for his glory. Because he cared about the men and women who serve in our armed forces so deeply. But maybe most of all, he was a truth teller.
Perhaps it’s a reflection of our politics that a man can be so well regarded for simply telling the truth as he saw it. Or maybe, recognizing the demands and failings of our politics, it is more of a reflection on the man – that four decades of public life could not warp or dim his fidelity to the unvarnished truth.
I will miss him dearly. In the past year of his illness, during moments of doubt about the direction of our country, I found myself thinking about what John McCain would do or what he would say if he were here.
Truth be told, there is nothing I could say that could possibly add or detract from Senator McCain’s illustrious career. There is nothing any of us have done that compares to the sacrifice he made in a cell block half a world away and half a lifetime ago, a sacrifice he made over and over again for the country he loved and the principles he advanced.
So that generations will study his example, I’ve proposed that we rename the Russell Senate Office Building, one of only three Senate office buildings, after John McCain. It would be a fitting tribute to a man who considered his service here in the Senate – headquartered in the Russell Building, where his beloved Armed Services Committee also resides – the most significant in his distinguished career of service. The man whose name he would replace, Senator Richard Russell, a towering figure in the Senate of his day, was nonetheless an avowed opponent of civil rights and the architect of the Southern filibuster that long delayed its passage.
It is time we recognize that as the times change, so do our heroes.
So I will be introducing a resolution with Senator Flake to change the name of the Russell Building to the McCain Building. I hope my colleagues will co-sponsor and support the resolution. But it need not be the only way we honor Senator McCain.
We can honor him by trying to carry out the principles he lived by. We can try, as he did, to put country before party. We can try, as he did, to speak truth to power. And we can try, as he summoned us to try, to restore the Senate to its rightful place in our national political life.
Up until the very end, John McCain still believed the Senate was capable of solving our country’s greatest challenges. He believed that our arcane rules and procedures, designed to frustrate one-party rule, were an antidote to the polarization of our politics. At the very least, he believed in the Senate’s ability to make progress. To set aside, for a moment, our party affiliations, political interests, and personal ambitions in the service of a larger cause. Because that’s what he did. And for all his cynicism, he still believed the Senate could reach that higher calling.
Deep in the middle of his final speech on the Senate floor were these words: “I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other, learn how to trust each other again, and by so doing, better serve the people who elected us.”
If we are to truly honor the life and the service of John McCain, let us do that.
Let us do that.
Also, Madame President, John McCain put out a few final words today. I’d like to read just two paragraphs of that, and then ask unanimous consent that they be put in the record.
“I have often observed that I am the luckiest person on earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I have loved my life, all of it. I have had experiences, adventures, and friendships enough for ten satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anyone else’s.”
And finally, he concluded with this:
“Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history. Farewell, fellow Americans. God bless you, and God bless America."