WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) today spoke on the Senate floor to honor the life and service of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who passed away on August 25, 2018:
“Mr. President, words are a poor measure of any life, much less a life the size of John McCain’s, and the swath he cut on this earth. And yet we must try. We may never see his like again, and so for the sake of the country he loved, we owe it to his memory to be more like him, so that when the season of mourning is over, we don’t merely dispense with our earnest tributes and go right back to our venality. Because the poverty of our words notwithstanding, we have lately wasted a lot of words in this town doing and being everything that John McCain was not. We would do well to allow this moment to affect us in ways reflected not merely in our words but also our deeds. We would do well to reflect on John McCain’s example today and ask ourselves if we are living up to it or even coming close. We would do well to honor him by emulating his example.”
Video of Flake’s full remarks can be viewed here.
A transcript of Flake’s prepared remarks can be viewed below.
Until the very end, he served his country. Until the very end.
And service to John McCain meant living in service to something unique in all the history of the world - the American idea. E Pluribus Unum - from many, one - might seem like a quaint vestige from a more idealistic time when compared to the brutal and determined divisions of our own time, but it was an idea that defined John McCain’s life.
In and through his service he defied categorization, frustrated the tired conventions of the way party loyalists are supposed to behave, acted against his own political interests time and again in a way that from our vantage point today is nothing short of awe-inspiring, and he recognized that democracy was hard but that living in bondage to tyranny was harder.
We talk a lot in this chamber about “freedom.” No one in this city and few in American history knew as much - and as vividly - about the price of freedom as John McCain. Our words are too often cheap and eminently forgettable. But John McCain paid our freight with his body and with his soul.
To our shame, he lived long enough to have to take to this senate floor to inveigh against the rank tribalism that we have lately fallen into. He knew that giving in to our worst impulses to score pyrrhic political victories was as easy as it was dangerous. It was and is a tangible threat to the American democracy that he gave every bit of himself to.
If I may, and with your indulgence, read from Senator McCain’s last speech from this room. On July 25, 2017, bearing the fresh wounds from his last battle, Senator McCain stood in this chamber. Thinking not of himself but of his country, he exhorted, inspired, pleaded, and cajoled all of us in an attempt to shake us to our senses, reject the prevailing ugliness that seized the capital.
One last time, he was standing alone to do what was right. In a sure sign of just how desperate he was, he even appealed to our decency and to our reason - qualities that seem to have long since fled Washington.
That day last summer, he said, in part:
“We are the servants of a great nation, ‘a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’ More people have lived free and prosperous lives here than in any other nation. We have acquired unprecedented wealth and power because of our governing principles, and because our government defended those principles.
“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.
“What greater cause could we hope to serve than helping keep America the strong, aspiring, inspirational beacon of liberty and defender of the dignity of all human beings and their right to freedom and equal justice? That is the cause that binds us and is so much more powerful and worthy than the small differences that divide us.”
Until the very end, he served his country, Mr. President. And now, as we consider the life of this man, in stark relief to what now passes for our politics, he continues to serve - as a beacon to who we are and what we can be, when we are at our best.
If John McCain can forgive his North Vietnamese torturers, we can forgive each other. But that gesture of Senator McCain’s was not merely a gesture of conciliation for conciliation’s sake. It was reflective of a world view that saw the humanity even in his enemies, of a sometimes unfathomable decency that could overcome most any difficulty, and of a deep dedication to another American idea - the idea that character is destiny.
And to the eternally optimistic American preference for tomorrow over yesterday. I don’t know whether or not Senator McCain - whether or not John - subscribed to the Great Man or Great Woman theory of history - the notion that the story of humanity is written by the actions and choices of great individuals. I don’t know if he believed that or not. But I do know that he lived it.
I know this because although It has been the honor of my lifetime to serve in this body with Senator McCain, as “the other senator from Arizona” - long before that privilege was accorded me by the people of my state, I was John McCain’s constituent. And when the necessity presented itself to point up examples for my daughter and four sons of lives lived with purpose and principle - of role models - I had to look no further than my senator, John McCain.
Now, we have a pretty good idea that such approbation would be mocked most loudly by John McCain himself. I imagine he would have some choice and colorful language in response to the outpouring of love and tribute since he left us. We know that like all of us, the senator was not perfect. In fact, if you were at all interested in an inventory of his failings, McCain himself was the one most eager to provide it. But as a former aide of his said in the past few days, “McCain wasn’t perfect. But he perfectly loved this country.”
Mr. President, words are a poor measure of any life, much less a life the size of John McCain’s, and the swath he cut on this earth. And yet we must try. We may never see his like again, and so for the sake of the country he loved, we owe it to his memory to be more like him, so that when the season of mourning is over we don’t merely dispense with our earnest tributes and go right back to our venality. Because the poverty of our words notwithstanding, we have lately wasted a lot of words in this town doing and being everything that John McCain was not.
We would do well to allow this moment to affect us in ways reflected not merely in our words but also our deeds. We would do well to reflect on John McCain’s example today and ask ourselves if we are living up to it or even coming close.
We would do well to honor him by emulating his example.
We of course will never have his extraordinary comic timing. He ribbed me without mercy, and with only a little exaggeration, that the only way I was ever elected to anything was because of my hundreds of siblings and thousands of cousins. I would have laughed harder if there wasn’t some truth to it.
We will never possess his grace in both victory and defeat.
We will never have his servant’s heart.
Nor his power and clarity about what the daily effort that freedom requires. John McCain knew firsthand the epic global struggle for freedom and so he was freedom’s greatest champion in the United States Senate. He also knew that history is not a straight line, and that the ghosts of the great ideological struggle of the twentieth century were still here, haunting the twenty-first. As he recently told Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic:
“There’s always a Putin somewhere in the world, and you’re meant to oppose them with all the skills God gave you.”
So, as we say goodbye to John McCain, let us take up his banner.
His was always the good fight.
We are fortunate to have known him best in Arizona. But he was always bigger than any one state. He always belonged to America, and to the world.
And now he belongs to the ages.