John McCain and Susan Collins met 40 years ago working in the U.S. Senate. He was a Navy liaison to the Senate, having recently returned from North Vietnam where he was a prisoner of war. She was a legislative aide to Maine Sen. William Cohen. Their relationship, both have told me, was from the beginning a little prickly. The independence that defined their later careers as senators from Arizona and Maine, respectively, was evident even then.
At any given time, a few senators stand out from the rest. When I was a young senate aide in the 1960s, it was Everett Dirksen and Mike Mansfield. Later on, it was Howard Baker and Ted Kennedy. More recently, McCain earned that standing because his independence, integrity and diligence often caused the rest of us to wonder until the last minute how he would vote — although we knew that however he voted it would be because it thought it was right for the country. Collins has earned that same standing.
The most recent example of Collins’ integrity, independence and diligence was her powerful address regarding President Donald Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. She approached the controversy as she always does — carefully and with an open mind. Jon Kyl, who accompanied Kavanaugh to most of his meetings with senators before Kyl was appointed to serve the remainder of McCain’s term, told me that it was Collins among all senators who most carefully questioned Kavanaugh. Her meeting with Kavanaugh lasted two hours. She is not a lawyer, but she had read his opinions and seemed to know as much about some of them as any Supreme Court justice would. She followed up with telephone calls and requests for documents.
Then Collins insisted that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford be allowed to testify. Then she insisted that there be a seventh FBI background check of Kavanaugh to interview those individuals who Ford said were present at an alleged sexual assault 36 years ago. Instead of joining what she later described as a “caricature of a gutter level political campaign,” Collins did her homework quietly. And on Oct. 5, in a 45-minute address, she explained why she was voting yes.
“We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy,” she said. “We will be ill served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be.”
In saying this, she performed one of the essential roles of U.S. senators — checking runaway popular passions. Her Republican colleagues applauded her decision. They did not applaud two weeks later when she performed another one of the essential roles of U.S. senators, checking what she believed to be an excess of the executive branch when she voted with every Democrat to overturn Trump’s expansion of short-term health insurance policies. That measure ultimately failed to pass.
McCain often joked that he would never be elected “Mr. Congeniality” because of his temper and unpopular votes. But when he died, there was an outpouring of respect and affection for his independent ways. Collins does not have McCain’s temperament, but her votes regularly disappoint colleagues on both sides of the aisle. And we have learned to respect those decisions.
The job of a U.S. senator is not to win a “Mr. or Ms. Congeniality” contest. It is to provide a check and balance on popular passions and on the excesses of the executive branch as well as to work across the aisle to provide solutions to big problems that most Americans will accept and that, therefore, will last a long time.
Collins’ model for such a senator is another Maine senator, Margaret Chase Smith, whose historic speech in 1950 condemned Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s reckless allegations of Communism against so many Americans. Smith’s speech was shorter than Collins’ speech on Kavanaugh but both provided a necessary check on popular passions. For their independence, diligence and honesty, both Maine senators have earned a special standing in the history of the U.S. Senate.
Lamar Alexander, a Republican, represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.