ICYMI: Menendez Op-Ed on John McCain
ICYMI: Menendez Op-Ed on John McCain
It’s been said that you never forget your first time meeting Sen. John McCain.
For me, it was early 2006. I was new to the U.S. Senate, having served in the House. I was determined to build a record as an effective senator, and I had submitted an amendment to the budget aimed at reducing the burden on New Jersey taxpayers. The Republican majority wasn’t thrilled that I was the one putting it forward, but I had strong bipartisan support.
I believe it is important that the American people know where their representatives stand, so I asked for a roll call vote rather than a simple voice vote. Immediately, McCain barreled toward me on the floor and said, “Bob, you’re a jerk!” I was stunned. We weren’t on a first-name basis back then. “Senator,” I said, “what is the problem?” “This didn’t need a roll call vote,” he roared. “That makes you a jerk!”
The New Jersey in me kicked in and I fired back with some colorful language, standing my ground. And I thought, wasn’t this supposed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body? What’s going on? “Welcome to the Senate. That’s John McCain,” Sen. Harry Reid said.
It turned out that John wanted to leave on a foreign trip and I was delaying him.
But Reid also said, “Good for you for standing up to him, Bob. You just earned his respect.”
You see, John respected people willing to stand their ground, not out of partisanship, but principle.
John also believed that being a U.S. senator was about more than passing laws. It is about championing American values around the world. Yes, he was a relentless advocate for the American military, but he ultimately believed that our nation’s strength came not just from the size of our military, but also the power of our ideals.
John believed that, as Americans, we have a responsibility to support all people in their struggle against tyranny, to stand up for human dignity against those who deny it, and to share American ideals like freedom, democracy and human rights around the world.
When I served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which John was a member, Russia had invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea. John was instrumental in helping me craft the package of sanctions to counter Russian aggression. His support and counsel were invaluable as we worked to pass the Ukraine Freedom Support Act in the months that followed, which made clear America’s unwavering support for the Ukranian people and their right to sovereign self-determination and freedom.
Now, some in his own party have accused John of abandoning his conservatism when he sought common ground. That’s foolish. Take it from me, as a member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight that worked on historic immigration reforms back in 2013.
When we began negotiations, I had a healthy dose of skepticism toward John. I imagine he did so with me — the Hispanic Democrat with vocal views. How could this really work?
It’s easy to demonize the other side from afar. But when you sit in a room with someone for hundreds of hours, as I was with John, slowly the veil of distrust between you begins to lift. And you soon realize there is far more that unites you as Americans than divides you as partisans.
John never relented in his commitment to border security, just as I never relented in my commitment to bringing the undocumented out of the shadows and toward a path to citizenship. We disagreed, pretty much constantly. And yet we built trust. We engaged in the give-and-take of compromise. And we emerged from the Gang of Eight negotiations with a compassionate, comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform bill that passed the Senate with 67 votes.
That’s the only way we can get things done, with mutual trust and good-faith compromise, balancing pragmatism and idealism, and a shared commitment to solving the toughest challenges our nation faces.
John McCain wasn’t perfect. No one is. He made mistakes. We all do. But what made him a giant of the Senate, in my opinion, was his willingness to put country over party and patriotism over partisanship.
A new “gang” is forming to find a fitting tribute to Sen. John McCain. I support naming a building in his honor, and hope we do. But we should not stop there. I believe it would be a great tribute to John if all of us strived to look at one another through his lens.
And let’s remember that we are servants for something far greater and bigger than ourselves. We are bestowed by the American people an opportunity to make an imperfect nation even better. And we are far more likely to succeed when we can rise above the politics of division, look beyond the next news cycle, and work relentlessly, together, toward a common cause.
Bob Menendez is a Democratic senator for New Jersey.