My heart goes out today to Cindy McCain, to all the members of John McCain’s family. Our country has lost a leader who had a conscience and the courage to be guided by it. I feel lucky to have known him. I don’t know where we will be without him.
John McCain faced many tragedies and setbacks in his life, and I imagine that many people remembering him in the coming days will focus on those. But he was also one of the most effective Congressional leaders of our time, from his efforts to curb corruption in our politics, to his stewardship of legislation confronting tyrants and human rights abusers, to his insistence on regular order in the Senate, to passing the law that outlawed torture. I went to see him after he won the torture ban in 2005, mostly to look back and say thank you, and his first question was “what’s next?” That’s why he experienced so many setbacks – when he saw a challenge at home or overseas, whether climate change or our broken immigration system or the uprisings of the Arab Spring, he never calculated the odds of success; he just tried to do what he thought was right. And the more lost and honorable and lonely the cause, the more he wanted to get in the fight.
In 2012, after the United States had helped the Libyan people topple the Qaddafi regime, an effort he had championed, I told him that the new government there was imprisoning African migrants in brutal conditions. So he got on a plane and confronted the problem himself. I will always remember the incredible sight of John McCain going from cell to cell in a Libyan prison, with several other bemused Senators and terrified US embassy staff trailing behind him, hearing out the inmates and jabbing his finger in the chest of the warden demanding to know if he was torturing people.
In 2014, he said some kind words at my confirmation hearing to be an Assistant Secretary of State. In reply, I recalled a scene that happened at the Boston Marathon bombing the year before. Right after the bombs exploded, most of the people there ran away from the blast, but there were a few who ran in the opposite direction, straight for the fire and the smoke. They had no idea what they would find there or how much danger they were in; they just knew there were people there who needed help, and so they ran straight for the trouble. That is how I will remember John McCain. He was a man who ran straight at the hardest problems even when the risks were high and the rewards for himself very small.
He was always brutally honest with himself. He hated dogma and could change his mind when the facts and common decency demanded it. As he had many occasions to say in the last year of his life, he insisted on a politics that seeks solutions to problems, not scapegoats. We have never needed these qualities more in our leaders.
We will honor him by trying to live up to his example. We will help him rest in peace by fighting our hearts out for the country he loved and for the ideals that make it worth fighting for.