Washington is a funny place. Ordinary people –congressional staffers, lobbyists, or in my case, public interest lawyers– often find themselves mingling with very prominent, famous people at receptions, cocktail parties, testifying at hearings, attending press conferences, or walking down the halls of the Russell Senate office building. It was on several of those occasions that I saw Senator John McCain in action.
In the 1990s, Senator McCain chaired the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee. For many consumer advocates, this is the most important body because it oversees the work of the consumer protection agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission. I was a lobbyist at the time for Consumer Reports, charged with improving product and auto safety. It was a constant battle to get the auto industry to accept safety as one of its mandates and to make cars safer for the traveling public.
Senator McCain, while chair of the committee, unlike so many of his Republican counterparts, admired my fellow consumer advocates and said so. He called my boss Gene Kimmelman, who was director of Consumers Union in Washington and an expert in antitrust and telecom, “a remarkable young man.” He praised Joan Claybrook, head of Public Citizen and instructed his staff to work with consumer advocates on auto safety measures. I sat through hearings where he excoriated the auto industry witnesses for putting cars on the market with obvious safety defects and for their history of opposing safety measures, as he noted, “including seat belts and airbags.”
He wasn’t always supportive of consumer rights. The Senator had a conservative voting record and opposed a lot of consumer initiatives; for example, in 2001 we successfully defeated the nomination of Mary Sheila Gall for chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. She was wholly unfit for the job, blaming “negligent” parents instead of manufacturers when a product injured or killed a child. McCain was very angry about her defeat. But what made the Senator different is that he wasn’t single-minded, marching to the beat of the industry mantra that any regulation is bad regulation, and was actually willing to take them on publicly.
As luck would have it, one day some years ago I found myself waiting for a taxi after a Washington event. Standing next to me happened to be Senator McCain with his mother in tow. She was youthful and full of spunk. He introduced us. We started chatting and, although I can’t remember details, it was like talking to the guy at the dry cleaner or the grocery store. We had a laugh; I remember him as fun and friendly. Then he and his mom got into the car and sped off. I came home and told my son I had just spent a few minutes chatting with John McCain. He didn’t believe me. After the Senator ran for President and lost, I’d see him in the halls of the Russell Senate Office Building ,and I always said hello and thanked him for his service and for his integrity.
Senator McCain continued to fight for his beliefs up until the last possible moment. He was a prisoner of war for five years and suffered torture and beatings, but maintained his dignity and strength until his release and always said he liked and admired the Vietnamese people. He served in the House and Senate and ran for President twice. He had a kind of integrity that is in short supply today. For instance, he once told a lady at one of his campaign stops in Minnesota that she was wrong, Senator Barack Obama wasn’t an Arab and was a “decent man and a family man.” He was one of the few—and most importantly, decisive votes—to oppose killing the Affordable Care Act. He called out President Donald Trump time and again, at great risk to losing his Republican base, while most of Senator McCain’s Republican colleagues remained silent. The country has lost a brave and important voice, and we should all mourn his passing.