On Senator John McCain and Civility

Vice President Joe Biden talks with Senator John McCain before speaking at the McCain Institute for International Leadership Sedona Forum in Sedona, Arizona, April 26, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

My mother had an expression she’d say to me:

“Joey — you’re defined by your courage, and you’re redeemed by your loyalty.”

John McCain is a man who is defined by his courage. And while we may frequently disagree in public, he is always, always, redeemed by his loyalty. It’s an honor to be receiving a reward for civility in public life alongside him today.

I met John when I was a young senator, and he was still in the Navy — just freed from Vietnam, where he’d endured more than five years of solitary confinement and torture.

Others would be quite reasonably left broken by this fate. But John was driven by duty. He stayed in the Navy. Became the Senate liaison officer, before being elected to the Congress and then the Senate. We traveled the world together. Got to know each other’s families.

Make no mistake: We’d still disagree on the policy particulars. That’s no secret. But the point was we always respected one another. We were willing to hear one another.

And I think John would agree that the biggest difference between the way things are today and the way they were when we arrived in this city is that nobody talks to one another anymore. Nobody gets to know one another anymore. And because of that, we have seen an erosion of basic civility in politics. I mean that sincerely.

And the plain and simple truth is that it’s made it harder to get things done for the very people who elected us.

John and I can attest that that hasn’t always been the case. Our elected leaders, by and large, used to get along with one another. Sure, we’d fight like hell — but we had more than a modicum of respect for one another. We made an effort to know the person, and not just the position. To understand our colleagues and their unique motivations by seeing them first as human beings.

I’m proud of that approach to the work we’re all so honored to do. An approach of civil negotiation, but compromise. And I’m proud of the results it’s helped achieve for the American people — from averting crises like the fiscal cliff to budget agreements that help grow our economy, bolster our security, and reflect governing by consensus, not crisis.

And I’d like to think that the reason John and I get along is that we have true understanding of the human dimension of this line of work. That all politics, even international, is personal.

It calls to mind something that Majority Leader Mansfield told me so many years ago when I came to speak to him. He said,

“Joe, every single person, no matter how fundamentally you disagree with their judgment, was sent here because the people of those states saw something good in them. You’ll get along a lot better and make more progress if you look for what those people saw in them. And never question another man’s motive. Question his judgment — but never question his motive.”

I’ve certainly questioned John McCain’s judgment. But I have never, never questioned John McCain’s motives. He’s never questioned mine.

Our Constitution does not teach intransigence or stonewalling. It does not inform the refusal to accommodate the views of other Americans. The greatness of our Constitution is the promise that every single voice can be heard because our government processes are designed to blend those voices together. Perhaps not always in harmony. But always in unity.

Our country’s history is studded with moments where we’ve found a way to moderate the extreme reactions that threaten to tear us apart — and find a path to progress. It’s when we’re truly at our best.

We need more of those moments, folks. We need more John McCains.

Listen to the Vice President reflect on his long-time friendship with Senator John McCain.