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McCain Had An Unwavering Moral Compass, Schumer Says


As we continue to look back on the life of Senator John McCain, we're going to focus now on his legacy as a lawmaker. McCain served two terms in the House of Representatives and went on to be elected for six terms in the U.S. Senate. The Arizona Republican described himself as a proud conservative, but he also prided himself on his image as a maverick as when he explained his vote against a Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year.


JOHN MCCAIN: I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered. I will not vote for this bill as it is today.

MARTIN: In a wide-ranging speech to his colleagues, McCain decried the loss of bipartisan cooperation.


MCCAIN: Why don't we try the old way of legislating in the Senate, the way our rules and customs encourage us to act? If this process ends in failure, which seems likely, then let's return to regular order.

MARTIN: McCain's calls for bipartisanship won praise from many Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

CHUCK SCHUMER: He had just an amazing moral compass. And many politicians, they first try to figure out the political consequences and then decide whether to do the right thing. John McCain decided what the right thing was, did it and then dealt with the political consequences over and over again. And he would be the first to admit that he wasn't perfect. He made mistakes. He always regretted putting Sarah Palin on the ticket even though he might not have been as public about it to be polite to her, but it was well known. He regretted his role with the Confederate flag back in South Carolina, but he always, always, always had an incredible moral compass, and he spoke truth to power. This is a time when we need people like that, so his loss is doubly felt. It would be felt in any era but most particularly in this one.

MARTIN: You served together for a very long time. You both have had long careers in the Senate. Did you always see him this way? I mean, he's always sort of tried to describe himself as a maverick, but his voting record is very conservative, very different from yours. Did you see him this always as a person who was willing to...

SCHUMER: Well, he always was a...

MARTIN: Or did he change?

SCHUMER: Yes. He was always a maverick. I think the time - the one time when he wasn't was when he was running for president in 2008 and I again would guess - I don't know this for a fact - that he regretted some of that. And he returned to his maverick role when he came back to the Senate. It took him about a year. And then one of his passions, which showed the strength of the man, was immigration reform, as you know. He and I led the Gang of Eight - one Democrat, one Republican. Frankly, it's a lot easier for a Democrat from New York to be for immigration reform than for a Republican from the very conservative border state of Arizona. But he was strong, and we'd sit in these meetings, the Gang of Eight - you know, four Democrats, four Republicans - for hours trying to figure out how to craft a good immigration reform bill. And John, again, was motivated by doing the right thing. And there were times when, you know, he said this is going to cause me huge grief politically, but it's the right thing to do. I'll go for it. I saw that over and over again.

MARTIN: What allowed him to be that person? What - in your view as a person who knew him, why do you think he was able to do that?

SCHUMER: Well, I'll tell you an interesting little story. So he and I were conversing privately a lot right before he voted against the efforts to repeal the ACA, the health care bill. And one - I think it was the morning right before he voted. I went to what was called his hideaway. He had a little office right off the floor of the Senate. There were a lot of pictures on the wall of his father, his grandfather, both of whom were four-star admirals. And I think the service to the nation hovered over him because it was in his blood, in his genes, in his family line. And I think that helped him overcome the daily pushes and pulls of politics.

MARTIN: You have put forward a resolution to rename the Russell Office Building, the Russell Senate Office Building, for Senator John McCain. Tell us why.

SCHUMER: Well, he was such a towering figure and stood for so much the right thing so needed at this time when our politics is so nasty and so fractious. I want future generations to remember. I'd like when little children visit the Senate and they say who was John McCain, because the building was named after him, and have their parents and grandparents explain it to them.

MARTIN: Now, it's interesting that - I assume Russell - you chose the Russell Building because that's where Senator McCain had his office.

SCHUMER: That's where he had his office and, you know, there's also a view - he stood up to bigotry over and over and over again. And of course, Richard Russell was part of the Southern group that tried to maintain the Jim Crow laws when Lyndon Johnson, his friend, fought them. So I think it's fitting.

MARTIN: What reaction are you getting to your proposal so far?

SCHUMER: Very positive from both sides of the aisle.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, Senator McCain often clashed with President Obama over policy, the way the Obama administration handled Libya, Syria, even the Affordable Care Act. And yet, Senator McCain, it's our understanding, wishes President Obama to speak at his funeral. Why do you think that is?

SCHUMER: That's just who John McCain was. You know, on foreign policy, he was more hawkish than Obama, as were a lot of people. And he didn't shy away from clashing with him when he thought it was the right thing to do. But I think he had tremendous respect for President Obama for what he achieved and for who he was because they didn't agree, but they each tried to do the right thing. And I think it's a beautiful thing that he asked President Obama to speak at his funeral despite the fact that they disagreed on so many different things and despite the fact that President Obama defeated John McCain in 2008.

MARTIN: That is Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York. Senator Schumer, thanks so much for talking with us.

SCHUMER: Great, bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.