John McCain was the last statesman

  • McCain-8

    Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) passed away on Saturday after a battle with brain cancer. He was 81.


  • Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in print on May 13, 2018. It has been updated to reflect the passing of Sen. John McCain.

    “It’s not about terrorism, it’s about us.”

    That’s what John McCain said about Americans torturing other human beings as part of the war on terror.

    That’s what he said when his presidential ambitions would have been better served if he’d played to his audience — GOP primary voters in South Carolina.

    But he is already greatly missed in the U.S. Senate, where there is no one like him — no one with that sort of clarity, courage, and authority.

    Keith Burris.
    Keith Burris.

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    There is also almost no one who serves in the Senate, or who works there, whom he has not told off or dressed down on some occasion. But there is virtually no one in the Senate who does not respect, admire, and indeed love John McCain.

    He is missed on the torture debate, as the Senate considers the nomination of a CIA veteran, a dedicated one, who nonetheless accepted and oversaw torture, to head the agency. She says she has now seen the light. Is that good enough?

    John McCain would have been at the Senate hearings on Gina Haspel last week, asking tough questions, if he were well. But, from his sick bed, the senator did issue a statement saying that what Ms. Haspel said was not good enough. Ms. Haspel is a patriot, said Mr. McCain. But the Senate should exercise its constitutional duty to advise and consent and reject her nomination to lead the CIA: “Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

    Mr. McCain is missed as we consider the President’s cancellation of the “Iran deal,” so called because the previous president did not submit it to the Senate as a treaty. What would John McCain say today about either president and his actions?

    Perhaps something like what he said about repeal of Obamcare last year: We should fix the things that are wrong in government and national and international policy, not scrap them.

    He has not always been a truth teller. Sometimes Mr. McCain’s desire to be his party’s standard bearer got the best of him. He himself has said so. But, generally, he could not help being a maverick and calling out the posturing and the hypocrisy.

    When Mr. McCain killed the Obamacare repeal with his single, lonely “no” vote last year, he got a few things said: Let’s stop playing games. Let’s stop bickering. Let’s return to the “regular order” — hold hearings, gather evidence, work together to craft legislation — and get something done for the country.

    He was fresh from a very grave diagnosis when he said all that. Knowing that he has a terminal disease has only made John McCain more fearless.

    Mr. McCain became a great senator partly because of sheer years of service. He has been elected to the Senate six times — more than Barry Goldwater, or Robert Taft, or Daniel Webster. You can get good at something if you do it long enough.

    But he also became a great senator because he was so independent, “into everything,” as a colleague said, and, at the last, idealistic. His colleagues forgave his cantankerousness because they knew his heart. They knew the depth of his love for the Republic, and the things for which it stands.

    His independence, and his record as a military hero, made him a national figure almost from the point of his arrival in the Senate in 1987. But he became a statesman.

    On torture, Iran, Russia, the military, the budget, Mr. McCain will be missed — next week and next month and next year. And a decade from now. There are no other giants, no statesmen, in the Senate today. There are only placeholders and politicians. His colleagues know that.

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    Would he have been a great president?

    That is something that is hard to be, especially today. But Mr. McCain surely would have been a worthy one. He would have stood for less government, generally; compromise and pragmatism at home; and human rights abroad. He would have carried the causes of liberty and human rights, which he said were his lodestars, abroad. He would have honored but also reformed the military. He would have sought to reform immigration.

    President McCain might have been a combination of Truman and Ike.

    All that is a fantasy, of course. But here is the reason for the fantasy: There are men who have run for president who would have been fine in the job and done no real harm. But they were truly also-rans. They were good public servants but left no footprints. There are others — like Nelson Rockefeller, Hubert Humphrey, Bob Dole, and John McCain — who did so much without ever becoming president that one cannot help but wonder what their presidencies might have accomplished for the nation.

    One thing is certain: John McCain leaves the footprints of a giant.

    He made the Senate and our country better. What more can be said?

    Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade, and editorial director for Block Newspapers. Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.