“It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.”
I was a 20-year-old college junior when a seemingly fearless U.S. Sen. John McCain spoke these reassuring words after I’d waited 30 minutes in line to shake his hand. A few months earlier, I’d been on my way to work as a House intern when the World Trade Center fell, the Pentagon burned, and a plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
I had come to love the Capitol and all it represented, and I was scared as hell when I saw our nation come under attack on Sept. 11, 2001. And it wasn’t until Dec. 4, when John McCain spoke to us at the University of Maryland, that I was truly convinced we would be okay.
Despite the fears my classmates and I had that day, he had big hopes for what we could do for America.
“There is not a doubt in my mind that young Americans are as patriotic, if not more patriotic, than my generation,” he said, adding America must “give young people the opportunity to serve causes greater than their self-interest.”
On Sunday, this tireless patriot will be laid to rest. And as Congress returns to Washington, we should take swift action to honor him.
No, not with a moment of silence or a building named in his honor; though I oppose neither, he probably would’ve sheepishly waved them off while he lived.
McCain was a man of action, and we should honor him with action.
In his parting statement to America, he observed our nation is weakest “when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down.” It’s an astute observation from a man who reached across the aisle on comprehensive immigration reform in 2005, working with then Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) to craft the first major legislation combining increased border security with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living here.
We can honor him by finally getting this job done. We all support true border security, not a costly, useless and absurd wall — so let’s do it. We know there must be a path to citizenship both as a logistical reality and a moral imperative — so let’s do it.
McCain also reached across the aisle on campaign finance reform, working with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) to draft and pass the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, aimed at reducing the role of big money in elections. Much of the McCain-Feingold law was gutted by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which McCain called the high court’s “worst decision ever.”
He knew, and we all know, that a flood of dark money is poisoning our democracy, letting deep-pocketed special interests prevent Congress from acting even on issues upon which we agree. So let’s get rid of Citizens United and give our elections back to voters.
McCain in April 2013 – months after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre – was one of four Republicans who crossed the aisle to vote for the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey gun violence bill to expand background checks for gun purchases. The bill still fell six votes short of the 60 it needed to pass, and Congress has been stuck in the mud on gun violence ever since, even as our mass-shooting body count has skyrocketed.
So let’s pass universal background checks, as more than nine in 10 Americans want, and save American lives.
In his goodbye letter, he wrote that “we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times.”
We all know the us-versus-them rhetoric fueling this administration will have no good end for America, no point but to inflame anger and fear and deepen our divides — so let’s abandon it, recognize that we can disagree without being enemies, and unite against the foreign adversaries who truly would harm our nation.
John McCain wasn’t perfect; no one is. But he had memorable moments in which he refused to let party talking points usurp reality. He was a man of deep convictions, and though I disagreed with many of his ideas, I admired his recognition that compromise isn’t weakness, his sense of honor and duty and his love of country.
John McCain left us a road map, one that I’ve tried to follow since he laid it out for me as an anxious college student 17 years ago. In the waning days of this 115th Congress, let’s honor him by following it together.
Congressman Eric Swalwell represents California’s 15th District; is co-chair of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee; and serves on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees. Follow him on Twitter at @RepSwalwell.