Sullivan Pays Tribute to Senator John McCain in Speech on Senate Floor

“When he took a stand, he could be unwavering, but he was always willing to listen to reason and to compromise when the reasoning was convincing and the principle sound…”

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) yesterday spoke on the Senate floor to honor and pay tribute to his colleague and friend the late Senator John McCain.

Honoring John McCain

Senator Sullivan speaking on the Senate floor in honor of Senator John McCain (click image or here to watch).

REMEMBERING JOHN McCAIN -- (Senate - August 28, 2018)

Mr. President, I am standing at a different desk this evening to give my remarks because I want to be actually behind this desk in front of me, which is Senator McCain's desk draped in black, with beautiful flowers, signifying the loss that we are all feeling here in the U.S. Senate.

As we have heard from so many in this Chamber all week--this evening in particular--Senator John McCain's passing represents an incalculable loss not only to his family, his dear wife Cindy, his friends, and a legion of admirers across the world, but also to his colleagues here in the U.S. Senate--Democrats and Republicans--and to the institution of the Senate itself, where he served as a model of honor and integrity and character for 31 years.

There are so many people who served with him much longer and knew him much better than I did. I have been watching the speeches, the wonderful, passionate, and emotional words from my colleagues like Senator Graham--Lindsey Graham--his best friend here in the Senate this afternoon; Senator Whitehouse, a good friend of Senator McCain's, a good friend of mine whom I met through many trips with Senator McCain; Leader McConnell; Senator Sasse--so many have been coming to the floor.

The tributes on the Senate floor and in the newspapers across the country have been inspiring, and they have been true, talking about a man of courage, a steadfast patriot, an American hero, a warrior of indomitable spirit, who not only believed in American exceptionalism but inspired millions of Americans and millions of people across the globe to believe in it as well.

As I have watched and listened, sometimes I have started to wonder what more there is to add--there has been a lot said--especially from a freshman Senator who hadn't served with John nearly as long as most in this august Chamber. But if Senator John McCain taught us anything, it was to speak when you feel compelled to speak, and when it comes to him, I certainly feel compelled to speak, particularly as a newer Member of this body who thought the world of this man and learned so much from him.

John McCain was a leader. There is no arguing about that. One of the qualities of leadership that is so important and sometimes gets overlooked and that was a huge quality of this great Senator was his ability to focus on and give his time and willingness to mentor newer Members of the Senate.

If you look at the arc of his three decades of service in the U.S. Senate, one thing he always took the time to do was to take newer Members under his wing, show them the ropes, travel with them, teach them, coach them. Of course, this takes time, effort, energy, and initiative. We are all busy here in the U.S. Senate, but this was and is a truly important hallmark of the McCain legacy--critical--and it is a bipartisan legacy.

Just look at the Senators who have come to the floor to speak about Senator McCain. Look at some of the newer Senators who have come to the floor: Senators WHITEHOUSE, KLOBUCHAR, ERNST, SASSE, and GRAHAM, of course--so many who had that privilege, the great privilege, of having John McCain actually take an interest in them and spend his precious time and energy on their well-being and careers in the Senate.

One of the true honors of my life was having John McCain as a friend and a mentor in the Senate. At the time this was happening, I didn't always think about it too much, but now, as we look at his desk, I am so grateful that I had these experiences.

Like most things with John McCain, it wasn't a subtle experience. In fact, a lot of the time I didn't feel I had a choice in the matter. My first month in the Senate, in January 2015, like a lot of the new Senators, I was pretty clueless here, quite clueless--rules, faces, names, votes. This lion of the Senate, John McCain, pulled me aside on the floor of the Senate on two different times in the first month I was a Senator.

On one occasion, he was talking about an institution that really mattered to him--the U.S. Naval Academy. He said to me: Dan, do you know what? Under Federal law, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee--which he was--sits on the boards of all the service academies, or his designee. He asked me if I was interested in sitting on the Board of Visitors for the Naval Academy. This was from John McCain, who went to the Naval Academy. His dad went to the Naval Academy, and his grandfather went to the Naval Academy. The name McCain and the Naval Academy are almost synonymous. He is going to be buried there, in fact.

I looked at the Senator, and I said ``Yes, sir.''

Another time, in the Armed Services Committee, he mentioned to me that he had always taken a very strong interest in the Asia-Pacific and our force posture out there, what was happening in places like Okinawa, and he wanted the newer Members of the Senate to be part of it. Reaching out to new Senators--I want you to do this. I am going to travel the region, and I want you to come with me. I mean, it was unbelievable. And I said ``Yes, sir'' to that.

 Like so many here who have talked about it, we went to these places. Just a couple of months later, I had the incredible honor of traveling to Vietnam with Senator McCain, with Senator Reed from Rhode Island, Senator Ernst from Iowa, and that is a trip I will never forget.

We actually went to the Hanoi Hilton, which has been talked about a lot this past week, where John McCain suffered and was tortured. There is a tribute in that place of torture. It is not really a tribute, but it has pictures of him. We walked in, and we looked at this, and there were a couple of Americans in front, reading about this. They turned around, and they saw John McCain, and two of them just started crying.

By the way, when you were in Vietnam with John McCain, he was treated like a hero--the hero that he was--by the Vietnamese people, which was amazing.

These co-dels--and Senator McCain has led them all over the world with Senators--have gotten a lot of attention. Of course, they are very important. Senator Graham was talking about them recently in the Senate. We focus a lot on foreign policy and national security. You can't learn that from watching cable TV, but you can learn when you go out into the world and travel and meet with leaders and meet with people and see the suffering, see the opportunities, and see the challenges.

John McCain took so many of us, through his leadership and mentorship, on these congressional delegations all over the world.

There has been some joking now about how, with his energy and his focus, some Members called these forced marches. By the way, nobody could keep up with him--even the newer Members. They certainly were tense.

Back to the idea of mentorship, on a co-del with John McCain, he once again showed that leadership. He would be leading it. He would be in a room with a world leader, and then he would take the time to name and introduce every Member of the Senate on the co-del and have them ask questions, have them engage. He could have dominated every one of these conversations. He never did. He was always asking the Members: What do you think? Do you have a question?

These co-dels were also a great opportunity to bring Senators together--Democrats and Republicans. When you are traveling overseas, partisan differences fade if you are in a war zone or in a poverty-stricken country or dictatorship. You see that what unites us is a lot more important than what divides us.

The bottom line is that he clearly saw that part of his mission was to work with and mentor the next generation of Senators on responsibilities that he clearly cared so much about, particularly on foreign policy and national security.

I would like to talk a little bit about my class, the class that was elected in 2014. We had 13 new Senators in that class. The Presiding Officer is a Member of that class. It is a great class. There is a lot of energy and a lot of youth. Of the 13 Members of the class of 2014 who joined the Armed Services Committee, if you look at it right now, there are 8 who are on it. That is John McCain in action as the former chairman of that committee, taking newer Senators and getting them on that committee to focus and learn about the world.

There have been numerous articles and commentary--particularly in the realm of foreign policy and national security--saying that the passing of this great Senator has left a huge void in the Senate, and I couldn't agree more. The combination of service, sacrifice, moral authority, military and combat experience, and a deep, abiding conviction about America's role in the world makes him a unique Senator, unmatched by anyone in this body.

One of the things I believe Senator McCain knew about leadership and one of the reasons he focused so much on the issue of mentoring other Senators over the years was to prepare this body and the next generation of Senators, whether on the Armed Services Committee or as part of another institution he led for many years, the International Republican Institute--making sure and being ready so that when this day happened, other Senators who were taught and mentored and encouraged by John McCain would be focused on issues that he cared so much about, like the indispensable role of America and the Senate in making the world a better place.

A mentor is, almost by definition, a teacher. Many of us have learned so much from him. Much has been said about this, and I am sure that over the years, we will learn more about what Senator McCain taught us. I would like to highlight two areas where I personally learned so much from John McCain.

The first was how to fight for what you believe in. When you look at the arc of John McCain's whole life, whether in the Hanoi Hilton or on the Senate floor, it was about fighting for what he believed in. Pretty much everybody in this body has had a scrap with John McCain, and when you did, you had to be ready to fight with all you had because he was so passionate and intense.

On the Armed Services Committee, I had a bit of a tradition with him. Prior to the markup of the National Defense Authorization Act, I would go and have a one-on-one meeting with him on some provisions that he might not like that I was trying to get in the bill. These were mostly behind-closed-door battles, some of which got a little heated, fingers pointed, voices raised. I won a few, lost a lot more than I won, but it was never personal for John McCain. He was a warrior, and as he often said, ``A fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed.''

When he took a stand, he could be unwavering, but he was always willing to listen to reason and to compromise when the reasoning was convincing and the principle sound, regardless of who was making the case--a Democrat or a Republican.

``We are Americans first, Americans last, Americans always,'' he once said. ``Let us argue our differences. But remember we are not enemies, but comrades together in a war against a real enemy.''

He always fought with honor, and he always kept his word. In his final memoir, ``The Restless Wave''--which I recommend everybody read; it is a great book--he has a chapter called ``Fighting the Good Fight.'' It recounts a lot of his battles on the floor of this body, but when the fight was over, he emphasized the importance of keeping your word--what he called the Senate's principal virtue. He always did that, and he taught others to do that.

Another thing I learned early on from Senator McCain was how to have fun and not take life too seriously here in the Senate. Senator McCain's good friend John Lehman, who was President Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, recently wrote an op-ed about Senator McCain's life entitled ``A Life of Service, Lived With Good-Natured Irreverence.'' I think for those of us who knew and loved John McCain, that was a great description of him. His wit was legendary. After a while, I learned that if you were a target of it, it was ultimately a term of endearment, although it could take some getting used to. Senator Sasse was just on the floor talking about some of the barbs, some of his first engagements with the Senator.

I first met John McCain 4 years ago. I remember the meeting like it was yesterday. I was a huge fan. I had read books about him. I read books by him. I was here as a candidate for the Senate and had recently won my primary, and I was meeting Senators at one of our lunches. Senator Murkowski, my colleague from Alaska, was taking me around and introducing me to a number of Republican Senators, and she said: Dan, have you ever met John McCain?

I said: No. I would be honored to meet him.

I walked up to Senator McCain. Of course I was a bit nervous. My colleague from Alaska, Senator Murkowski, was introducing me and telling him about my background--that I was in the Marine Reserves commanding a battalion--and Senator McCain looked at me very seriously and said: Well, that is interesting, Dan. I almost joined the Marines.

I said: Really, Senator?

He said: Yeah. I almost joined the Marines, but the Marines told me I wasn't qualified.

I said: Really? Why weren't you qualified?

As I was asking this question of him, I noticed other Senators gathering around, all smiling.

He said: Why wasn't I qualified? Because I knew who my parents were.

Of course everybody laughed. Senator McCain laughed. I realized I and my beloved Marine Corps had just been assaulted by John McCain in the first of what would be many jokes. Only later did I know--and Senator Graham was talking about it--that this Marine joke was one of the many in the McCain repertoire. I have heard it many times now. It always gets a laugh. These jokes are a great part of his wonderful personality--irreverent wisecracks to keep people humble, keep them laughing even about serious topics.

I remember when I was in Vietnam with Senator McCain. We were at the lake in Hanoi where he had been shot down and had parachuted into this lake. There is a statue of John McCain coming out of the lake. The language is in Vietnamese. He said: You know, I really don't like this statue. I can't stand it. Do you know why, Dan?

No. I have no idea, John.

Look at what it says: John McCain, Major, U.S. Air Force.

Then he let a few choice words out that I can't say here on the Senate floor.

He said: I wasn't a major in the U.S. Air Force; I was a commander in the U.S. Navy.

Even in the twilight of his life, the wit and wisecracks were as strong as ever. I had the honor of visiting Senator McCain about 6 weeks ago in Arizona with his wonderful wife Cindy. We were talking about the National Defense Authorization Act that we were getting ready to vote on that was named after him. I was getting ready to leave, and I said: John, I just want you to know all your Senate colleagues really miss you.

He hadn't said much during the conversation. He looked at me and said: Dan, that is a lie.

Again, after all he had been through, he still had a lightness of being and wit and laughter. He still knew how to love the world, how to appreciate it in all its humor, splendor, and creativity.

The story of John McCain is a story for the ages--carefree, somewhat reckless young man; a rebel searching for a cause who found that cause in love of country as a POW in Vietnam; a person who underwent unimaginable pain and suffering and yet came back better for it and loved America more for it and wanted most of all to pass down that love, that sense of service to the next generation. He succeeded.

 Let me close by quoting the same Robert Louis Stevenson poem Senator McCain recited during his father's funeral service:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea;

And the hunter home from the hill.

To Cindy McCain and the whole McCain family, please be assured of our continued prayers and deepest condolences for your loss. We miss John McCain so much, as we know you do.

To my friend John McCain, Godspeed. Semper Fidelis. Fair winds and following seas. It was an honor to serve with you. You will always be with us.

I yield the floor.