This is how it happens: people, places, or simply the tide of current events sweep by and my innate geekiness about history and American government go into overdrive. This week it’s the passing of Senator John McCain.
I first visited the U.S. Senate on a family vacation to Washington, D.C. in 1963. Back then when you took the Capital tour, you got to spend several minutes sitting in the visitor’s galleries of the Senate and the House. The Senate was in session the day of our tour. As President of the Senate, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was presiding, and as one Senator (I have no idea who) was holding forth on the floor, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois (who was Senate Minority Leader and represented our own state of Illinois) approached Johnson for what appeared to be a congenial conversation. Were they trading D.C. gossip or negotiating the advance of the president’s agenda? I have no idea.
What we saw was a Republican (Dirksen) and a Democrat (Johnson) deep in conversation. I have never forgotten that picture.
Fast forward to 1970, when I was spending the third term of my junior year in college (along with 24 other classmates) in Washington D.C. Nixon was president. The war in Vietnam raged on, as did the protests, including Kent State. It was an exciting time to be a student in D.C.
As part of our political science seminar, we had passes to the House and Senate Galleries. My roommate sister Danielle and I were unabashed government geeks. We had agreed that if we were near the Capitol and saw the flag flying over the House or Senate (indicating that body was in session), we would always stop. We saw some interesting speeches and began to comprehend how those bodies worked on and off the floor. One day we visited the Senate and found the chamber to be relatively quiet. We sat briefly and were thinking of leaving when Danielle noticed the Press Gallery suddenly filling. Then senators started coming in and Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine asked for the floor, where she firmly but politely (as only the Senate can do) chastised President Nixon for publicly claiming her support for Supreme Court nominee George Harold Carswell. She had not offered her support, Nixon was being presumptuous, and she was voting against Carswell.
When the Senator concluded her comments, the press rushed out as quickly as they had rushed in. We knew we had witnessed a bit of Senate drama. Senator Smith was a Republican (and a woman) who stood up to the Republican president. Her position was not partisan, it was what she thought was right for the country.
Which takes me back to John McCain. I think he might be irreplaceable. Who else can step into McCain’s role of courageous, maverick conscience in the Senate? Who else is going to weigh what’s “right” over political expediency?
Let me be clear. I never voted for McCain, and I had issues with some of of his politics. But I deeply respect his lifetime of service to the country. His willingness to work across the aisle, to listen to the other side, to move graciously forward whether winning or losing, are characteristics we sorely need but seldom see.
The realist in me understands that this is part of the ebb and flow of our history. My friend Nancy wrote a great post here on Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Meacham’s point is that our country has weathered incredible low points, then our “better angels” help us pull together.
I hope those angels arrive soon. In the meantime, I’ll add Meacham’s book to my growing must-read list.
I’m so glad you stopped by. See you next time!