In the course of my career I've had the great privilege of working for Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson and knowing John McCain, two of the most consequential senators of the last seventy-five years. And these two men knew each other very well, because Jackson was a model and mentor for McCain.
That story is very well told in a column in today's Washington Post by James Hohmann entitled "What John McCain learned from his Democratic mentor." Because this kind of contemporary history is so rare in newspapers today, Hohmann deserves great credit for understanding and reporting this extraordinary relationship.
As Hohmann reports, McCain was the Navy liaison to the Senate for several years before being elected to the House and then the Senate. In those years, the late 1970s and early 1980s (before Scoop Jackson's very untimely death on 1983), Jackson and McCain traveled together and worked together often. What did McCain learn from Jackson?
Hohmann has it right. Watching Jackson change U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, McCain learned that Congress had enormous power to affect U.S. foreign policy--and could use that power to fight for better policies. Watching Jackson take on administrations of both parties, he learned that foreign policy should be above partisan politics. Watching Jackson champion the Soviet dissidents and other oppressed groups, he learned that U.S. foreign policy should be built around a moral and ideological core that differentiates us from other countries.
As Hohmann wrote,
Even as he battled brain cancer, McCain still spoke fondly of Jackson as “the model of what an American statesman should be,” invoking him with reverence during impromptu hallway interviews and in speeches. He strove to emulate him as a globe-trotting avatar of American values, willing to take on his own party leaders and go toe-to-toe with presidents.
In “Worth the Fighting For,” McCain identified half a dozen people who inspired him to get into politics. He devoted a full chapter to Jackson....
McCain wrote in 2002 that “Few presidents can claim to have served the Republic as ably, as faithfully as Scoop Jackson did.” As McCain put it,
All these trips, all these speeches, op-eds, press statements, interviews, professing support for Ukrainians and Georgians and Estonians and Montenegrins, condemning [Vladimir] Putin, criticizing my own government. Did it change anything, improve anything? I hope so. But I know for certain it meant something to the people I meant to help because they’ve told me it has. It meant that there were Americans on their side, that we hear them, we acknowledge the justice of their cause, they aren’t forgotten. … It matters. Scoop Jackson taught me that.
He taught a lot of us that, and then John McCain taught it to a new generation. In the Senate and in his service as chairman of the International Republican Institute, McCain upheld the principles he had shared with Jackson. I hope the senators attending his memorial service this weekend will reflect on what John McCain taught them and showed them, and will silently pledge to try to fill the enormous gap his passing has created. That is the tribute McCain would most have appreciated.