Senator John Kerry Delivers Senate Farewell Floor Address
Washington, DC – Senator John Kerry today spoke on the floor of the United States Senate for the last time as the Senator from Massachusetts to thank his colleagues, staff, and constituents for their support and friendship over the past 29 years, and talk candidly about the importance of the Senate functioning effectively.
“If democracy deadlocks here, we raise doubts about democracy everywhere. If we do not in our deeds prove our own ideals, we undermine our security and the sacred mission as the best hope of earth. But, if we do our jobs right, if we treat our colleagues with respect and build the relationships required to form consensus – and find the courage to follow through on our promises of compromise – the work we do here will long endure,” said Senator Kerry. “So let us in the Senate and the House be bigger than our own districts, our own states. Let us in spirit and purpose be as big as the United States of America. Let us stand for our beliefs, but above all let us believe in our common history, our common destiny, and our common obligation to love and lead this exceptional nation. They say politics stops at the water’s edge. That is obviously not always true, but if we care for our country, politics has its limits at home and abroad. As I leave here, I do so knowing that forever the Senate will be in my soul – and that our country is my cause – and yours.”
The full text of Senator Kerry’s floor statement, as delivered, is below:
I want to begin by thanking my colleagues, all of them for their unbelievably generous comments to me personally, in the committee, and on the floor, in the halls, meetings over the course of the last weeks. I will always be grateful for our friendships, and I thank my wife Teresa who is here sitting in the family gallery, and my entire family for their unbelievable support through this journey.
Five times Massachusetts has voted to send me to the United States Senate. Yesterday, nearly three decades after the people of Massachusetts first voted me into this office, the people I worked with in the Senate voted me out of it.
As always, I accept the Senate’s sound judgment!
Eight years ago, I admit that I had a very different plan, slightly different anyway, to leave the Senate, but 61 million Americans voted that they wanted me to stay here with you.
And so staying here – I learned about humility, and I learned that sometimes the greatest lesson comes not from victory, but from just dusting off a defeat and starting over when you get knocked down.
I was reminded throughout this journey of something that's often said but not always fully appreciated. All of us Senators are only as good as our staff. Staff that gives up their late nights and weekends; postpones vacations; doesn’t get home in time to tuck children in to bed—and all of these lost moments because they're here helping us serve. They're not elected, they didn't get into public service to get rich, that’s for sure, and their names are rarely in the newspapers, but from the staff in the mailrooms to the people who answer the front phones to the policy experts and the managers -- the legislative correspondents who write the letters, the caseworkers who make government accountable, and the people everywhere in between -- they make the Senate work for people. I've been blessed to have a spectacular staff and while I know every one of my colleagues would say the same about their staffs – its true about mine.
If I start naming names I'm sure to miss someone –so I’m not going to – but I think everyone on my staff will understand why I want to acknowledge five who are not with us any longer. They’re up in heaven looking down on all of us and Ted Kennedy’s probably drafted them all: Jayona Beal, Jeanette Boone, Bill Bradley, Louise Etheridge and Gene Heller, the latter two of whom were senior citizen volunteers in my Boston office who opened our mail for over a decade, not paid, they just did this out of their love for country. What a special twosome they were. We miss them all, and we thank them for their selflessness and their contribution, as I do the entire staff of 561 incredible men and women in Massachusetts and Washington that I've been privileged to work with through these 28 plus years.
I also think about the interns – 1,393– who have come in and out of our offices from Washington to Worcester. And I'm especially proud of those who started as interns and ended as my Chief of Staff, Legislative Director, senior policy staffers, or the Kerry interns who went on to work not just for me, but who have for the last four years been top speechwriters, trip directors, and senior communications staff at the White House for the President of the United States. I'm proud of our internship program, and grateful to the people who built it and who sustain it.
I also want to thank the incredible group of unsung heroes who literally make the Senate work – people who work not for individual Senators but for all of us, in every room and nook and cranny of this great series of buildings, the men and women who operate the Senate subways, Darrell, many others and the trains and elevators. They take us to and from votes and meetings. They are really the glue and we couldn’t function without them. The Capitol Police who protect us, police who many started to notice a little bit more after that awful day in 1998 when two were shot and killed on a busy Wednesday afternoon.
The parliamentarians and the clerks and staff here on the floor — including Gary, Tim, Tricia, Meredith, and all the folks on the cloakroom and Dave on the other side and all the folks in the Republican cloakroom, all of whom help keep us going and are unfailingly patient when we call for the umpteenth time to find out whether the vote schedule is going to let us make it home to a child's dance recital or birthday party. I want to thank the many Bertie Bowmans who came here more than forty years ago, dug in, and made the Senate their cause and their concern. People like Meg Murphy of the Foreign Relations Committee who makes everybody’s life easier.
And, I thank the reporters who catch us in the hallways, trap us, ambush us in the hallways ---- , despite all the changes and challenges in their own business, still dutifully document the first drafts of American history. I thank all the incredible people who travel through these halls working incredibly hard to get it right, people of character who cover this place as a public service not a sport – and I thank them. I thank David Rogers for all he's stood for so long in this institution. It is hard to imagine my job without seeing him in that long green coat waiting by the elevators after a late night vote.
Sometimes in politics, it's now almost a sport in America to dismiss the contributions of the people who work in government, people who make the Senate work, but people that the public never see. I admired the way our former colleague Ted Kaufman used to come down here once a week and tell the story of one individual federal worker. The stories are legion. Instead of tearing these people down, we should be lifting them up, and I thank them all for the part they play in our democracy.
I will share with you that now that I’ve come to this moment in the journey, I can say without reservation that nothing prepares you for it.
Many times now in 29 years, I’ve been at my desk here on the floor, starting way over there, number 99, listening as colleagues bid the Senate farewell. Sometimes a farewell speech signals a complete departure from public life, sometimes a new journey altogether. Sometimes a forced departure. Sometimes a leap for freedom. I’m grateful that at this moment, thanks to my colleagues, serendipity and the trust of our President, while I’m closing a chapter, it’s not the final one. But I assure you, amid the excitement and the possibility, I do feel a wistfulness about leaving the United States Senate. And that’s because, despite the obvious frustrations of recent days and years, a frustration we all share — this place remains one of the most extraordinary institutions of any kind on the face of the earth.
On occasion we’ve all heard a Senator take their leave condemning the Senate for being broken, or for having become an impossible setting in which to do the peoples’ business.
Of course, many have later confessed just how much they missed and appreciated the Senate’s unique character after they’d bid it farewell.
I want to be very clear about my feelings: I do not believe the Senate is broken — certainly not as an institution. There is nothing wrong with the Senate that can’t be fixed by what’s right about the Senate – the predominant and weighty notion that 100 American citizens, chosen by their neighbors to serve from states as different as Massachusetts and Montana, can always choose to put parochial or personal interests aside and find the national interest.
I believe it is the honor of a lifetime, an extraordinary privilege to have represented the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States Senate for more than 28 years, just like each of you feel about your state. What a remarkable gift it has been to carry the banner of Senator from Massachusetts, a banner passed from the sons of the American Revolution like Daniel Webster to the sons of immigrants like Paul Tsongas, and to know that a state where the abolitionists crusaded at Faneuil Hall and the suffragettes marched in Quincy Market could send to Washington sons like Ted Kennedy and Ed Brooke who fought to expand civil rights – and now a woman, Elizabeth Warren, who proved that in Massachusetts the glass ceiling has finally been forever shattered.
And what a remarkable gift Massachusetts has given me to come here and learn so much about the rest of our country. I’ve had the privilege of learning what really makes our nation tick. What a gift to have been the nominee of my party, to have come within a whisper of winning the Presidency against a wartime incumbent, but more importantly, to have experienced the magic of our nation in such personal ways.
To experience the gift of traveling along the banks of the mighty Mississippi, through Iowa and South Dakota and along the rivers where Lewis and Clark marked and measured the dream of our first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who foresaw an America that would advance into the West. To experience a journey that took me to Alabama where I stood silently in the very pulpit from which Dr. King preached his dream of an America united and dipped my fingers into the fountain in Birmingham, where water flows over the names of those murdered trying to vote, or just registering to vote; to see the water trickle over the words of Dr. King’s prayer that justice might “roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” I drove across the Hoover Dam and wondered as I did at what America can accomplish when we want to; driving across the Golden Gate Bridge at dawn and reminded that it was built at the height of the Great Depression when so many feared our best days were behind us. What I’ve seen and heard and learned in traveling across our country as a Senator from Massachusetts has prepared me more for my travels to other countries as a Secretary of State than any travel to any foreign capital.
I already know I will miss the best reward of carrying the title Senator, and that’s when you open a letter from someone who has traveled every route and exhausted every option, and who ultimately turned to you as the last resort and they finally got the help they needed. There is nothing that beats a letter that says, “I tried everything and no one would listen but you got it done!” Or, sometimes when you’re walking a street in a community at home and someone thanks you for a personal response they never expected to receive. That’s when public service has more meaning than the war of words our constituents dodge on the cable news.
Standing here at this desk that once belonged to President Kennedy and to Ted Kennedy, I can’t help but be reminded that even the nation’s greatest leaders — and all the rest of us — are merely temporary workers. I am reminded that this chamber is a living museum, a lasting memorial to the miracle of the American experiment.
No one has captured this phenomenon more eloquently or comprehensively as Robert Caro did in his masterpiece about the Senate, called Master of the Senate. I’m sure many in this room have read it. In that book, before we learn of the levers that Lyndon Johnson pulled to push our nation toward civil rights, Caro described the special powers that the Founders gave the Senate — and only the Senate. “Powers,” Caro writes, “designed to make the Congress independent of the President and to restrain and act as a check on his authority: power to approve his appointments, even the appointments he made within his own Administration, even appointments to his own Cabinet.” This body has now exercised that power on my behalf, and I will always be grateful.
Another master of the Senate, Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster, delivered 183 years ago this week what has often been praised as the greatest speech in Senate history. He stood at the desk that now belongs to the senior Senator from New Hampshire and argued forcefully in favor of the very idea that makes us the United States: that we’re all in this together, that we each have a stake in the successes and failures of our countrymen, that what happens in Ohio matters to those in South Carolina, or in Massachusetts or to Montanans. “Union and Liberty,” Webster shouted. “Now and forever, one and inseparable!”
As Caro retells it, “those words, spoken among the desks, in the Senate” left those in the gallery in tears and cast a model for how those of us in this chamber must consider the constituents of our colleagues, as well as our own.
But the truth is that none of us ran for office because of a great debate held centuries ago. None of us moved here because of the moving words of a Senator long since departed. We honor this history, but we’re here because of the legacy that we can and want to leave. It is up to us--to my colleagues here today and those to come after us, it is up to us to keep the Senate great. I fully believe we will meet that obligation— if, as the President told the nation and the world last week, we seize this moment together.
Yes--Congress and public life face their difficulties these days, but not because the structure that our Founding Fathers gave us is inherently flawed. For sure, there are moments of great frustration — for the American people and for everybody in this place. But I don’t believe they are the fault of the institution itself. It’s not the rules that confound us per se. It’s the choices people make about those rules. The rules we work by now are essentially the same ones that were here when I joined the Senate and found things to move much more easily than they do today.
They are essentially the same rules under which Daniel Webster and Lyndon Johnson operated, and they did great things. They are almost the same rules Mike Mansfield, Everett Dirksen, Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch used to pass great pieces of legislation. They are the same rules under which the Senate Democrats and President George H.W. Bush passed an agreement including tax increases to at last begin to tackle the deficit. I would remind everyone here, as I take my leave from the Senate, when President George H.W. Bush returned from agreeing to a deficit reduction deal at Andrews Air Force Base, he wrote in his diary that he might well have sealed his fate as a one term President. He did what he thought was right for the country and laid the groundwork for our ability to three times balance the budget at the end of the 1990s. That’s courage and the Senate and the Congress and the country need more of it.
Frankly, the problems we live through today come from individual choices made by Senators themselves—not the rules. When an individual Senator – or a colluding caucus — determine that the comity essential to an institution like the Senate is a barrier to individual ambition or party ambition, the country loses. Those are the moments in which the Senate fulfills, not its responsibility to the people, but its reputation as a sanctuary of gridlock.
I ask colleagues to remember the words of Ben Franklin as that long Philadelphia summer yielded our remarkable Constitution. Late at night, after their work was complete, Dr. Franklin was walking down the steps of Constitution Hall, of Independence Hall, and a woman called out to him and she said: “Well, Doctor, what have we got-- a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin answered: “A republic — if you can keep it.” Sustaining a functioning republic is work and it’s more than ever, I believe, our challenge today.
I’m hardly the first and will not be the last to call on Congress to remember why we’re here, to prioritize our shared interests above the short-term, to bridge the breadth of the partisan divide and reach across the aisle and take the long view.
Many have stood here, delivering farewell speeches and lamented what became of the Washington where President Reagan and Speaker O’Neill could cultivate an affiliation stronger than party, or a Congress that saw true friendships between Senators like Kennedy and Hatch, Inouye and Stevens, Obama and Coburn—the odd couples as they have been dubbed.
I can’t tell you why, but I think it’s possible this moment may see a turn in the spirit of the Senate. There are new whispers of desire for progress, rumors of new coalitions, and sense of possibility whether it is on energy or immigration. I am deeply impressed by a new generation of Senators who seem to have come here determined not to give in to the cynicism but to get the people’s business done. I am confident that when today’s freshmen take their turns in leaving the Senate, they will be able to tell of new Senators added to that inestimable list of odd couples. And with any luck, by then it will not be odd.
So I leave here convinced that we can keep our republic strong. When President Kennedy observed that “Our problems are manmade; therefore they can be solved by man,” he was talking about a much more literal kind of nuclear option than the euphemism we use today to discuss Senate rules. But his vision is just as important for us to recognize in our time, whether we are talking about the ability of Senators to debate and vote, or about any of the issues on which they do so. It is still true today, as he said 50 years ago, that “reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe he said they can do it again.” I believe that too.
So what effort do we need to put our reason and spirit into? I believe there are three challenges that have conspired to bring about a dangerous but reversible erosion in the quality of our democracy: the decline of comity, the deluge of money and the disregard for facts.
First, I have witnessed what we all have: a loss of simple comity, the respect that we owe one another and the sense of common cause that brings all of us here. The Senate as a body can change its rules to make it more efficient, sure. But only Senators, one by one, in their own hearts, can change their approach to legislating, which Henry Clay correctly defined as the art of consensus.
I came to the Senate in 1985 as a member of a hopeful and hard-charging class of freshmen. Paul Simon, Tom Harkin, Al Gore, Phil Gramm, Jay Rockefeller and I all have at least three things in common: we were all sworn in as Senators on the same day, we each explored running or ran for the White House, and none of us made it there. The last remaining member of that class, Senator Mitch McConnell, has now again been elevated by his peers as the Republican Leader.
I see a lot of a very similar aspiration to what we felt when I came here in 1985, and today’s freshmen and sophomores. Many came to the Senate running on the premise that it’s broken beyond repair. I encourage each and every one of them to reject this premise in order to restore the promise of the Senate. The Senate cannot break unless we let it. After all, the value of this institution, like any instrument of power, is in how we use it.
But we cannot ignore the fact that today, treaties that would have years ago passed 100-0 don’t pass at all. People who want to vote for something that they believe in actually don’t do so, for fear of retribution. That is a reflection on all of us. As I prepare to represent our nation in capitals around the world, I’m conscious that my credibility as a diplomat – and ours as a country – is determined to a great degree by what happens in our own capital city. The antidote to that, and it is pushed by rival countries is to demonstrate that we can get our economic house in order. We can be no stronger abroad than we are at home.
The unwillingness of some to yield to national interest is damaging to America’s prospects in the world. We are quick to talk about the global economy and about global competition, but it’s our own procrastination and outright avoidance of obvious choices that threatens our own future. Other nations are both quick and glad to fill the vacuum that’s brought about by our inaction.
If the Senate favors inaction over courage and gimmicks over common ground, the risk is not that we will fail to move forward. It is that we will fall behind, we will stay behind and we will surrender our promise to those who are more than willing to turn our squandered opportunity into their advantage. The world keeps turning; the Senate cannot afford to forever stand still.
Just as failing to deal with our deficit and our debt puts our long-term interests at risk, so does taking America to the brink of default. Our self-inflicted wounds reduce our leverage and influence in the world. And by failing to act, Congress is making it harder to actually advance America’s interests, and making it harder for American business to compete and for American workers to succeed. If America is to continue to lead the free world, this must end.
Now we’ve all bemoaned the lack of comity in the Senate, but you who remain here will have the power to restore it. The choice to work respectfully with one another is about as simple as it gets.
One suggestion perhaps while I’m honored by the presence of so many colleagues here now, Republicans, Democrats, I have to say we would all look forward to more days when United States Senate desks are full with Senators debating and deliberating, learning, listening, and leading. We would all be stronger if this Chamber is once again crowded because it is the world’s greatest deliberative body, the home of debate and deliberation, and not only when it becomes a departure lounge.
There is another challenge we must address – and it is the corrupting force of the vast sums of money necessary to run for office. The unending chase for money, I believe, threatens to steal our democracy itself. I’ve used the word corrupting – and I mean by it not the corruption of individuals, but a corruption of a system itself that all of us are forced to participate in against our will. The alliance of money and the interests it represents, the access it affords those who have it at the expense of those who don’t, the agenda it changes or sets by virtue of its power, is steadily silencing the voice of the vast majority of Americans who have a much harder time competing, or who can’t compete at all.
The insidious intention of that money is to set the agenda, change the agenda, block the agenda, define the agenda of Washington. How else could we possibly have a US tax code of some 76,000 pages? Ask yourself, how many Americans have their own page, their own tax break, their own special deal?
We should not resign ourselves Mr. President to a distorted system that corrodes our democracy. This is what contributes to the justified anger of the American people. They know it. They know we know it. And yet nothing happens. The truth requires that we call the corrosion of money in politics what it is: it is a form of corruption and it muzzles more Americans than it empowers, and it is an imbalance that the world has taught us can only sow the seeds of unrest.
Like the question of comity in the Senate, the influence of money in our politics also influences our credibility around the world. And so too does the difficulty, the unacceptable and extraordinary difficulty, we have in 2013 in operating the machinery of our own democracy here at home. How extraordinary and how diminishing that more than 40 years after the Voting Rights Act, so many of our fellow citizens still have great difficulty when they show up on election day to cast their vote and have their voice heard. That too is an issue that matters to all of us – because for a country that can and should extol the virtues of democracy around the world, our job is made more difficult when through long lines and overt voter suppression, and efforts to suppress people’s ability to exercise the right that we extol, so many struggle still to exercise that right here at home.
The last of these three obstacles that we have the ability, if not yet the will, to overcome is the unbelievable disregard for facts and science in the conduct of our affairs. It, like the first two, degrades our credibility abroad as well as at home.
My friends, the persistent shouting match of the perpetual campaign, one that takes place in parallel universes thanks to our polarized, self-selecting media, makes it harder and harder to build consensus among people. The people don’t know what to believe. So in many ways it encourages an oversimplification of problems that too often retreat to slogans, not ideas for real solutions.
America, I regret to say, is increasingly defaulting rather than choosing — and so we fail to keep pace with other nations in the renewal of our infrastructure, in the improvement of our schools, in the choice of our energy sources, in the care and nurturing of our children, in the fulfillment of our God-given responsibility to protect life here on earth. That too must change or our experiment is at risk.
To remain a great nation, we must do the business of our country. That begins by putting our economic house in order. And it begins by working from the same set of facts.
Though I believe we can’t solve any of these problems unless you really solve all of them, I note these three challenges because I believe the Senate is going to be locked into stalemate or our politics are going to be irreversibly poisoned unless we break out. I do so hopefully, as someone who respects and loves this institution and loves this country and wants to see us move forward.
Some things we know are moving forward. In the same time that comity has decreased and the influence has money has increased, I have seen the Senate change for the better. These halls used to be filled with the voices of men and men only. Decisions affecting more than half the population were made by people representing the other half. When I walked into the Old Senate Chamber to take my first ceremonial oath 28 years ago, I was joined by my two teenage daughters. It struck me that I had twice as many daughters as there were women in the Senate. Today, with the service of 20 women, including Massachusetts’ new junior Senator, this is a stronger, smarter place; more representative of our belief that out of many, we are one; more capable of fulfilling the vision carried from Washington to Webster to our current President that we are a stronger nation when our leadership reflects our population.
We have made huge strides in turning the page on gay rights. In 1993, I testified before Strom Thurman’s Armed Services Committee pushing to lift the ban on gays serving in the military and I ran into a world of misperceptions. I thought I was on a Saturday Night Live skit. Today at last, that policy is gone forever and we are a country that honors the commitment of all willing to fight and die for our country. We’ve gone from the Senate that passed DOMA over my objections to one that just welcomed its first openly gay Senator. There are good changes that have taken place for our Senate and our country. But we have more work to do. This place needs more women, more people of color, more diversity of background and experience.
But it is still a remarkable place. I’m reminded of the letters Harry Truman used to write home to his wife, Bess, as he sat in the back row of the chamber. Late one night, after one of the great debates of the New Deal era, he wrote, “I hear my colleagues, and I pinch myself and ask, ‘How did I get here?’” Several months later, he wrote Bess once more: “Again it is late at night and I am sitting here listening to the debate, I look across the aisle at my colleagues and I listen and listen, and I hear my colleagues and I ask myself, How did they get here?”
Well, I have no doubt that colleagues have asked that question about me or any one of us. Its been back and forth. But, 29 years after I came here, I have learnt something about how you solve that.
I learned that the Senate runs on relationships. I know that some of my more recent colleagues, sent here in tumultuous election cycles, hear that and think it's code for checking their beliefs at the door, and "going Washington." It's not -- and I'd add, don't kid yourself: no one got here on a platform of pledging to join an exclusive club and forget where they came from.
When I say that relationships matter, I don't mean back-slapping, glad-handing, hail-fellow well-met, go-along-to-get-along relationships. I mean real relationships.
And today's hard charging colleagues who came to Washington to shake things up, I'd remind them: so did I, so did Tom Harkin, and the others I mentioned. If I told you that a 40-year-old newly minted Senator John Kerry was going to tell you that relationships matter most, I would have looked at you like you had three heads. I cut my teeth in grassroots activism. I didn't come up through the political ranks. I burst onto the scene as an activist and when you're an activist, all that singularly matters to the exclusion of almost all else are the issues. Where are you on an issue. Right or wrong and that’s the ballgame. Wrong, that’s not the ballgame.
That's not what makes a good Senator. That's not what makes the Senate work.
My late colleague of 25 years, Ted Kennedy, taught me that. I saw him late nights on the Senate floor sitting with his colleagues. Talking. Listening. He wanted to know about your state. He wanted to know about your family. He wanted to know why you came here. He had a unique ability to know not just what he needed from you, on a vote or a piece of legislation, but to know what you needed on a personal level, as a friend, as a colleague, as a partner. My old friend now Vice President, Joe Biden, had a saying in his family: "if you have to ask, it's too late." With Teddy, you never had to ask, he already knew - and he was there. He was there on a foggy morning on Nantucket when my father passed away, when Teddy just materialized almost out of nowhere, and there he was there at my front door. He didn't call ahead. He didn't ask. He just came to mark the passage. He came to listen. He was there. It was an instinct for people and an impulse to help. He taught that to so many of during that period time somewhere along the line, he passed it on not just to me, but to others in my class of Senators who came here in 1984. I will never forget in 2007, on the day when I announced I wouldn't be running again for President, a tough day, another passage, when I got a call that Tom Harkin wanted to come see me. My staff surmised that he was probably coming to ask for money for the Iowa Democratic Party. They were wrong. It was a visit where Tom came just to share a few words that were very simple but which meant the world to me. A colleague visiting just to say he was proud that I was our party's nominee in 2004 and that he looked forward to working with me more in this institution. Let me tell you, those are the conversations that make the difference, that you never forget, and that is the Senate at its best, the place where relationships matter most.
And it matters. Because Teddy and Tom Harkin and so many others here understood instinctively that if 100 Senators really knew each other, and our leader has worked very hard to try to find a way to make this happen, then you can find ways to work together.
And, to my surprise, I learned it and lived it in my time here in ways I never could've predicted, alongside people I never thought I'd count among my proudest friends.
John McCain last week introduced me at my confirmation hearing. John and I met here in the Senate coming from very different positions and perspectives. We both loved the Navy. I still do to this day, but I had different feelings from John about a war. For both of us, Vietnam was a demarcation point in our lives the way it was for so many of our generation.
But here in the Senate, late one night on a CODEL – for people listening who don’t know, it’s a trip of Senators, Congressmen going somewhere in the world – we were going to Kuwait after the first Gulf War, John and I found ourselves on a C-130 sitting opposite each other. Neither one of us could sleep, so we talked. We talked late into the night about our lives and our war.
Shortly thereafter, George Mitchell and Bob Dole threw us together on a select committee to investigate the fate of Americans still missing from the war in which we'd fought. It was a tough time and an emotional issue in an era where Rambo was a box office smash and Newsweek magazine cover printed provocative photos which asked whether Americans were still alive over there.
Into that cacophonous cauldron, John McCain and I were thrown together. Some were suspicious of both of us. But together we found common ground. I will never forget standing with John in the very cell in the Hanoi Hilton in which he spent a number of years of his life, just the two of us, alone in the cell listening to him talk about that experience. I will always be grateful for his partnership in helping to make real peace with Vietnam by establishing the most significant process in the history of our country, or of any country, for the accounting for missing and dead in any war, and afterwards then working to lift the embargo and ultimately normalizing relations with an old enemy. John had every reason to hate but he didn't. Instead, we were able to heal deep wounds and end a war that divided an awful lot of people for much too long. And that is a common experience and only the relationships forged in the Senate could have made that happen.
John has this great expression, “a fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed.” He loves to debate, he loves to battle. And so do I. But I’ll tell you having fought besides him and fought against him, I can tell you it’s a heck of a lot better and more fun to have John fighting alongside you.
And we still have differences. There’s been a lot of newsprint has been used up covering some of them. But we both care about the Senate as an institution, and we both care about our country’s leadership in the world, even when we see it differently. And we both know that at some point, America’s got to come together.
We’ve shared this common experience and we’ve seen a lot together. We both were able to travel the country as the presidential nominee for our party and both returned to the Senate to carry on in a different way. Few people know what all that feels like. But just being by his side in Hanoi made it impossible not to be overwhelmed by his sense of patriotism, and his devotion to country. But it meant something else: if you can stand on the kind of common ground we found at the Hanoi Hilton, finding common ground on issues isn’t hard at all. I will always thank John McCain for that lesson. One of the magical things about the Senate is this amazing mix of people and how they can come together to make something happen.
I have learned and been impressed by the experiences of every single one of my colleagues and I honestly marvel at each state’s special character in the people they send here. I have learned from all: from the fiery, street-smart social worker from Maryland; from a down-to-earth, no-nonsense farmer from Montana; from a principled, conservative doctor from Oklahoma; from an amazingly tenacious advocate for women and the environment who blazed a trail from Brooklyn to Rancho Mirage and the United States Senate, who teams with a former Mayor of San Francisco who took office after the assassination of Harvey Milk and is committed to stand against violence and for equality; from a cantankerous, maverick patriot and former prisoner of war from Arizona; from a songwriting, original compassionate conservative from Utah; from a fervent, gravel-voiced people’s champion from Ohio; from a soft-spoken, loyal Medal of Honor winner from Hawaii who used to sit right here, from a college professor turned proud prairie populist and Senate Pied Piper taken from all us far too soon and far too quickly. From every member of the Senate, there are characteristics, passions, quirks and beliefs that bring this place alive and unite to make it the most extraordinary legislative body on earth.
That’s what I love about the Senate.
I love that instead of fighting against each other, Bill Frist, the former Republican Leader, and I were able to join forces to fight HIV and AIDS around the globe, and to convince an unlikely conservative named Jesse Helms to support and pass a bill unanimously that has saved millions of lives on our planet. That’s what makes this place so special.
Instead of ignoring a freshman Senator, Chairman Claiborne Pell allowed me to pass my very first amendment to change our policy on the Philippines, and so I found myself with Dick Lugar paired as Senate election observers who helped expose the voter fraud of the Marcos regime, ending a dictatorship and giving a nation of more than 90 million people the opportunity to know democracy again. That’s what the Senate can do, and that’s what I love about it.
Instead of focusing on our different accents and opposite ideologies, Jesse Helms and I found that our concern for illegal drugs was greater than any political differences between us, and so Jesse made it possible for an investigation to proceed and for the Senate to expose the linkages between the Contras in Nicaragua and the flow of drugs to American cities. That’s what the Senate can do.
Mr. President, the Senate can still work if we learn from and listen to each other — two responsibilities that are, like Webster said about liberty and union, “one and inseparable.”
And so as I offer my final words on the Senate floor, I remember that I came of age in a Senate where freshman Senators didn’t speak all that often.
Senators no longer hold their tongues through whole sessions of Congress, and they shouldn’t. Their voices are just as valuable, and their votes count just as much as the most tenured member of this body. But being heard by others does not exempt them from listening to others.
I came to the National Mall in 1971 with fellow veterans who wanted only to talk to our leaders about the war. President Nixon tried to kick us off the Mall. We knocked on door after door on Capitol Hill, but too often couldn’t get an audience with our representatives. A precious few, including Ted Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, came to where we were camped out and heard what we had to say. And I saw first-hand that our political process works only when leaders are willing to listen — to each other, but also to everyone else.
That is how I first came to the Senate — not with my vote, but with my voice — and that is why the end of my tenure here is in many ways a bookend.
Forty-two years ago, I testified before Senator Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee about the realities of war in Vietnam.
It wasn’t until last week that I would sit before that Committee again, this time testifying in my own confirmation hearing. It completed a circle, which I could never have imagined drawing, but one our Founders surely did: That a citizen voicing his opinion about a matter of personal and national consequence could one day use that voice as a Senator, as the Chairman of that same Committee before which he had once testified a private citizen, and then as the President’s nominee for Secretary of State — that is a fitting representation of what we mean when we talk about a government “of the people, for the people and by the people.”
In the decades between then and now, this is what I’ve learned above all else: The privilege of being here is in being able to listen to your constituents. It is the people and their voices – much more than the marble buildings and the inimitable institutions they house – that determine whether or not our democracy works.
In my first appearance before the United States Senate, at the Fulbright Hearings, I began by saying, “I am not here as John Kerry. I am here as one member of the group of one thousand, which is a small representation of a much larger group.”
I feel much the same way today, as I leave. We are still symbols, representatives of the people who have given us the honor to speak and advocate and vote in their name. And that, as the Bible says, is a “charge to keep.”
One day the 99 other Senators who continue on for now and soon to be a 100 again in a few days, will also leave in their own turn — some by their own choosing and some of the people’s. Our time here is not meant to last forever.
If we use the time posture politically in Washington, we weaken our position across the world. If democracy deadlocks here, we raise doubts about democracy everywhere. If we do not in our deeds prove our own ideals, we undermine our security and the sacred mission as the best hope of earth.
But, if we do our jobs right, if we treat our colleagues with respect and build the relationships required to form consensus – and find the courage to follow through on our promises of compromise – the work we do here will long endure.
So let us in the Senate and the House be bigger than our own districts, our own states. Let us in spirit and purpose be as big as the United States of America. Let us stand for our beliefs, but above all let us believe in our common history, our common destiny, and our common obligation to love and lead this exceptional nation.
They say politics stops at the water’s edge. That is obviously not always true, but if we care for our country, politics has its limits at home and abroad. As I leave here, I do so knowing that forever the Senate will be in my soul – and that our country is my cause – and yours.
I thank you all for your friendship and the privilege of serving with you.
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Alec Gerlach, (202) 224-4159
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