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Senator John McCain in 2008. (Photo: PBS NewsHour / Flickr)

Over the decades, the Project On Government Oversight had the honor and pleasure of working with Senator John McCain and his staff on a wide range of issues. From beating up the Air Force for trying to purchase extravagant “comfort capsules” for VIPs, to teaming up with him and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to break Congressional tradition and demand that the Congressional Research Service make its authoritative reports available to the public, to requiring the Pentagon to track its officials going through the revolving door to defense contractors, we often turned to McCain to tackle uphill battles. It was always evident that McCain deeply enjoyed fighting for what he believed was right. He loved holding Pentagon officials and contractors accountable, he relished spiking what he thought was a wasteful program, he savored the hunt for corruption, and he reveled in the skirmishes along the way.

One skirmish in particular stands out, and I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention in the extensive news coverage of McCain’s legacy: his groundbreaking investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s web of corruption. Not only did it ultimately result in 20 guilty pleas and convictions, with officials including then-Representative Bob Ney (R-OH) and Bush-appointed Deputy Secretary of the Interior Steven Griles going to jail, but it also led to a series of Congressional ethics and lobbying reforms. Some thought that investigation contributed to Republicans losing the majority in the Senate and the House. Every current and future lawmaker who is serious about the role of Congress should study that exercise of Congressional oversight—where party affiliation did not divert McCain’s attention from the evidence uncovered in his investigation.

It was always evident that John McCain deeply enjoyed fighting for what he believed was right.

In another skirmish, he successfully challenged the sweetheart deal the Air Force attempted to give Boeing for a tanker lease in 2003. In doing so, he not only stopped a major boondoggle that would have cost taxpayers more than buying the planes outright, he also uncovered the corruption behind the deal. Former Air Force official Darleen Druyun had given Boeing a “parting gift” upon her retirement from the Pentagon in order to feather her own nest and that of her daughter and son-in-law with jobs at Boeing. While observers may remember the criminal prosecution of Druyun and former Boeing Chief Financial Officer Michael Sears, they may not remember that none of it would have happened without Senator McCain’s investigations. Let us remember, that was a Republican Member of Congress holding a Republican administration accountable.

Then, in 2006, when POGO’s Mandy Smithberger uncovered the fact that a supposedly independent review of F-22 costs by the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) was tainted by its then-head being on the boards of two F-22 subcontractors, the Senator swung into action again. McCain called a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee subcommittee he chaired and asked POGO to be a witness.

The night before the hearing, The Washington Post ran a story detailing the conflict of interest. As the hearing opened, Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)—or, as we liked to refer to him, “the Senator from Lockheed”—was so furious he threatened to begin an investigation into which Committee staff had leaked information to the Post. Given that McCain was a vocal skeptic of the program, his staff were the clear suspects. When it was my turn to testify, I was able to correct the record: it was POGO that had provided the evidence to The Washington Post, not Congressional staff. I remember afterwards McCain’s staff asked me to come back to the ante-room, where the Senator thanked me for protecting his staff from the spurious charge. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “that was fun.”

POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian with Senator John McCain in 2003.

When McCain ultimately decided the F-22 fighter jet was just too unaffordable to continue buying more, he and Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) partnered with the Obama Administration to kill it. Now, just a few years later, it is hard to imagine any other Senator helping a president from the opposing party get a “win.” During that battle, we at POGO had a taste of the demanding, round-the-clock pace at which he expected his staff to conduct a battle campaign. It was thrilling and exhausting to have played a role in it.

Perhaps it is because he was so extraordinarily good at this work that it was so much harder to square just how extraordinarily wrong he could be on other things. Throwing more money at the Pentagon doesn’t enhance national security, and his years of oversight should have shown him why increasing the already bloated defense budget only leads to more waste. Furthermore, the public should be allowed to see how its lawmakers make decisions, and I strongly opposed his conducting the annual Senate Armed Services Committee’s markups of the National Defense Authorization Act behind closed doors. I also profoundly opposed his support for the Iraq War, and to send still more troops into the clearly failing war in Afghanistan. And frankly, he really wasn’t sympathetic to whistleblowers, and didn’t see a need to protect them.

None of these are minor issues for me. In fact, some may argue the areas where he was so wrong outweigh what he did well. But I never had any doubt that McCain took those flawed positions because he honestly believed he was right, not because a campaign contributor or lobbyist encouraged him to, or because it was politically expedient to do so. And that is part of what fuels my great respect and fondness for him.

As inspiring as it was for me as a good government advocate to work alongside McCain and his team fighting corruption, waste, and misconduct, the tremendous emotional tug I feel from his passing is intensified by his demonstrated humanity. His portrayal of immigrants as “God’s children” and his efforts to work with his friend the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to accomplish immigration reform as he watched some in his party turn to xenophobic policies; his fury when grilling Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after the Abu Ghraib revelations and his passion in trying to prevent the United States from ever again resorting to torture; and his (albeit imperfect) defense of his opponent, then-candidate Obama, against the racism of one of his own political supporters. Those moments catch my breath.

He saw his job not only as being responsible for ensuring good stewardship of taxpayer dollars and the enactment of sound policies, but also as being required to defend our constitutional principles both at home and abroad, or, as he called them in his farewell letter to the public, “America’s causes—liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people.”

His mere presence had an impact. It seemed at times his Senate colleagues were deterred from doing the wrong thing out of fear they would have to face his contempt, and that others felt they could be complacent because they knew McCain was around to do the right thing. His absence will most certainly be felt. But, as he left us, he wrote of his great faith in the future of our country because he knows we will rise to meet our challenges:

Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.

Senator John McCain

And so as we continue our work of fixing the issues plaguing our government, I am comforted that he had faith in the American people and in our system. I’m just sorry he won’t be here to enjoy the fight.