Death of a Senator

Lewis Thomas 10 September 2018

It’s early September, and Autumn is coming in. The service has been held in Arizona, and the world has watched. The bells have tolled at the National Cathedral, and in a chapel on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, John McCain is heading to his final rest. And with him, will lie a Senate – or at least an idea of a Senate.

For some, McCain’s legacy will be defined by his decision to make Sarah Palin his running mate in 2008, bringing nativist populism and facts-optional bombast into the mainstream of the Republican Party. But to view him solely as a creature of the 2008 Campaign – a man defined by his defeat, and tarred by his running mate, is to forget his career in the Senate and his qualities as a politician. He was a Senator in the traditional sense, and among the last of an old breed of Senators – individuals who came to the Senate after distinguished careers outside politics; who served to reconcile the interests of their State and the wider United States; and who knew that there were some virtues of government and personal civility which cannot be overridden in pursuit of partisan interests.

For the ideal of the Senator, we can look to the Federalist Papers, a series of articles written by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in the late 18th Century, aimed at defining the politics of the new United States – the position of Senator, “requiring greater extent of information and stability of character, requires at the same time that the Senator should have reached a period of life most likely to supply these advantages”; it should provide “the additional impediment… against improper acts of legislation” and resist “excess of law making”. Finally, the Senator should avoid the “misfortune incident in republican government… that those who administer it may forget their obligations to their constituents, and prove unfaithful to their important trust”. The virtue of a Senator lies not in their success as a legislator, but in their role as a representative and source of supervision.

These virtues come from Federalist #62, but draws too on Federalist #10 – “a Republic should not be dominated by a faction, or a group of citizens who restrict the rights of their fellows in order to achieve their own ends”. The Senator should be prudent, willing to consider evidence, represent their constituents to the best of their ability, and resist seduction by “factious leaders into intemperate resolutions”. In a Senate littered with Rent-Seekers and creatures of patrons, and dominated by politicians bent either on the acquisition or maintenance of power – and willing to manipulate procedure to do so – these virtues are in increasingly short supply. But John McCain had them.

This is not to say that McCain was perfect as a Senator. In the 1990s, he was caught up in a corruption scandal – the Keating Affair – which ended the careers of three of the five implicated Senators. But no politician is perfect. During his time in the Senate, McCain helped draft campaign finance legislation (The McCain-Feingold Act) aimed at limiting the influence of money in politics; he recused himself from bills concerning alcohol, due to his family’s links to a major brewery. He tried to combat the whiff of corruption in the Senate, and in his votes, he used his own experiences to inform his judgement. This is particularly evident in his attitude to torture, spearheading the Detainee Treatment Act to prohibit ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment’ of prisoners in U.S custody. Introduced in 2005, after waterboarding had been carried out at Guantanamo and pictures of torture at Abu Gharib had seared themselves into viewers’ retinas, the Act showed that, while elements of the US government were willing to lose their souls in pursuit of their aims, there were still dissident voices.

For the bulk of his political career, McCain was a legislator. He was a good one, and possessed a greater range of experiences than most, but a legislator nonetheless. But in his final years, especially after the deaths of Senators Kennedy and Inouye, he became something more than a politician. Voting with his conscience, rather than his party, and dominating the Armed Services Committee, he was among the last of an old breed of Senators.

The Senate Roll since the Second World War contains names made famous not only by their political achievements, but by their lives outside politics: John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth; Daniel Inouye won the Medal of Honor in Italy. George McGovern dedicated his career to alleviating famine and spreading his personal gospel. Even Ted Kennedy was defined by something other than his political career – a sense that every speech he gave was somehow a murmuring from his two brothers, an unbidden flickering of the flame of the Kennedy legacy. These men, with their backgrounds in public service and personal missions, made the Senate a more considered place – an environment where it was not just the achievements of legislators that mattered, but the culture they created and the legacy they crafted.

McCain served in the Senate with these men, and spent the final years of his career fighting a rear-guard action against the forces of faction and cynicism. With his vote against the Republican attempt to gut Obamacare, and his final statement against those who “confuse our patriotism with rivalries that have sown hatred and violence… [who] hide behind walls rather than tear them down”, he defined his legacy: that of an idealist who viewed politics as a long term game, and of a man who believed in the power of the individual and the merits of his peers. With those values, he worked in the tradition of the Senate. This is a besieged tradition, as the Senate of McConnell and Cornyn morphs into a creature of Faction, but McCain’s passing reminds us that it is a strong tradition, which will return.

Many of the incidents which he is now memorialised for – chief among them his telling a supporter who accused Barack Obama of being an “Arab” that Obama was a good person – show nothing more than common decency and a willingness to recognise that his political opponent was a “decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues”. With McCain, there was no assumption of virtue – no insistence that his opponent was somehow lesser for believing in different solutions to their country’s problems. This idea ought to be an integral part of political rhetoric, yet it has increasingly ceased to be so. But, like the tradition of the Senate, it remains a potent concept, and will, in time, return. We can only hope it does.

So, the ideal of the Senate may have taken a blow – with the loss of McCain, it has lost one of its most vigorous proponents – but, at the risk of sounding clichéd, ideologies have a tendency to re-emerge in happier times. McCain has died, but his values and legacy remain.

There’s a line in Horace, made famous by Wilfred Owen – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. ‘It is sweet and good to die for your country.’ Through his service in the US Navy, his career in the Senate, and his final act as a dissident against Trump and the modern Republican party, John McCain showed that it is in fact sweeter and better to live for your country and its values. Dulce et decorum est pro patria vītāre.