John McCain was a friend of mine. Unlike others, my friendship was less intimate – but no less genuine. I was certainly not in his inner circle – like Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. I was not even as close to McCain as our state’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who often traveled with McCain on important overseas trips.
My connection with McCain began when he and I were first elected to Congress from our respective states in 1982. McCain was already a nationally known figure given the story of his capture and confinement as a P.O.W. in Vietnam. I think he and I took note of each other due to a shared independent streak, a willingness to work across partisan lines, and a commitment to fiscal responsibility.
Within four years, McCain was off to the Senate. I observed with admiration his partnership with another Vietnam War vet, Sen. John Kerry, as the two of them played a key role in restoring normal diplomatic and trade relationships with Vietnam.
During his early years in the Senate, McCain and I worked together on a bicameral, bipartisan effort to trim federal spending. We co-chaired what was known as the Porkbuster’s Coalition. Our goal was to eliminate local and special interest projects (pork) that had no business being funded with federal dollars – but were often quietly tucked away in massive spending bills by powerful congressional leaders. Our efforts were not always successful, but they helped to keep a focus on unnecessary and wasteful federal spending.Though a member of the Armed Services Committee, McCain was not afraid to take on pork in the defense budget. His view was that pork-barrel projects were taking money away from more important national defense and military needs. In his final years in the Senate, he became chairman of the Armed Services Committee – and the recently passed 2018 Armed Services bill, which enhances resources for our military service members, is named in his honor.
Because of my respect for McCain’s personal integrity and his demonstrated commitment to bipartisanship, I was proud to support him in both of his runs for the presidency. In fact, in 2008 I co-chaired a group called Independents and Democrats for McCain. I knew from his willingness to work across the political aisle that he could be the kind of president who could bridge the divide and bring Americans together. At a campaign event in Lakeville that year, I sat no more than 12 feet away when he bravely admonished and corrected a supporter who attempted to describe candidate Barack Obama as a Muslim. I thought at the time: “That is the John McCain I know and admire.”
Later, I co-chaired with former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe a group called the Dollar Coin Coalition in support of the Coins Act. McCain was the Senate sponsor of this bill, which called for modernizing our nation’s currency – including replacing the paper dollar with a coin (and more controversially also eliminating the penny).
I fondly recall several summers ago when my wife and I were accompanying friends who wanted to take a family trip to the nation’s Capitol. I happily offered to act as a tour guide. Since the patriarch of the family was a Vietnam vet, I thought it would be fun to arrange a visit with McCain. McCain had no reason to meet with these Minnesotans other than his friendship with me. He graciously invited them into this office, visited with them in an unhurried fashion, and took numerous photos, which are now treasured by this family. That is the McCain I know and admire.
Incidentally, on another visit to McCain’s office just last year, I was proud to see how often on McCain’s electronic photo scroll the visage of Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar would crop up. By accompanying McCain on these international trips Klobuchar was helping McCain demonstrate that, in America, Democrats and Republicans can work together in a collegial, bipartisan way when it comes to our foreign policy commitments.
John McCain is now rightfully being honored for his lifetime of service to our nation.
He would be the first to remind us, however, that he was not a perfect man or a perfect public servant. But in my view, he set a high bar.
Reflecting on his years as a captive, he observed in his 2008 convention speech: “I fell in love with my country while a prisoner in someone else’s. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency, for its faith in wisdom, justice, and the goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for.”
John McCain gave us what we most need from our leaders. He was a true patriot believing in our American system and in the goodness of our people. He acted with integrity. He was decent and civil and dignified toward political friend and foe alike. He exemplified public service at its best.
In his last book — “The Restless Wave” — which I read just a few weeks ago, he recounted his career in the Senate, his presidential campaign and essentially said a farewell to his beloved state and country. After completing the book, I wrote him a short note concluding: “Your leadership has been an inspiration to me – and to millions of others. Thank you for being who you are.”
We now honor John McCain at his passing. But a question looms: Who among today’s leaders in Congress will step forward to emulate the patriotism, courage and civility that defined John McCain as a statesman in our time?
Tim Penny is president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and a former member of Congress.
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