Sen. Lindsey Graham doesn’t want to replace his best friend, Sen. John McCain — he wants to lead a march in McCain’s footsteps.
“If you want to help the country, be more like John McCain,” the South Carolina Republican said, voice cracking. “I believe there is a little John McCain in all of us, and the little John McCain practiced by a lot of people can make this a really great nation.”
At the start of his farewell speech on the Senate floor, Graham stood next to his desk, surrounded by the empty desks of his colleagues, and looked anywhere but to his right where McCain had sat during Senate debates before his death on Saturday at age 81. The space next to Graham was draped in a black cloth with a vase of white roses on top of it. Each time Graham looked down he choked up again and fought back tears.
“I do not cry for a perfect man,” Graham said. “I cry for a man who had honor and always was willing to admit to his imperfection.”
Graham spent nearly 20 minutes joking about and embracing McCain’s flaws as the seats around him started to fill in a bit. Democrats and Republicans, including many members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that McCain once chaired, arrived to listen and support a visibly shaken colleague.
The two Republicans shared a bond over their military backgrounds; both believed in the need for U.S. military intervention in foreign conflicts and grew close traveling the world together. They also logged many miles side by side on campaign buses, and Graham thanked the McCain family for adopting him into the clan.
There were the bad dad jokes McCain liked to tell. The nicknames — like “Little Jerk” — McCain had for his colleagues. The famous hot temper.
Graham also pointed out times when McCain’s differences with his own party over policies turned into public clashes — all without mentioning the bad blood between McCain and President Trump that persisted even after McCain died.
Instead, Graham mentioned his mentor’s failed attempts at immigration reform, his belief in climate change and compromise.
“He taught me that principle and compromise are not mutually exclusive,” Graham said. “To my friends on the other side, as long as I’m here, I’m going to remember that you have to get something, too.”
Graham wanted to celebrate and acknowledge the mistakes his friend made during his long career because, he said, that’s how McCain grew.
“The reason we’re talking about him today and the reason I’m crying is because he was successful in spite of his failures,” Graham said. “He could be tough, but the joy that you receive from being with him will sustain you for a lifetime.”
By the time Graham was reading, and riffing, from a white legal pad with handwritten notes, he was in tears. As he left the floor, his colleagues lined up for hugs and handshakes or just tried to make him laugh.
He later told reporters that McCain’s widow, Cindy, called him afterward and gave him her approval.
“It’s one foot in front of the other,” Graham said. “It’s going to be a hell of a week. We’re trying to give him the sendoff he deserves. This is as much for us as it is [for] him.”