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Profiles in Courage?

By Tess Alexandra Orrick The award was given for political courage, but it could also have been for irony. Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold got...

By Tess Alexandra Orrick

The award was given for political courage, but it could also have been for irony. Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold got it for their effort to reduce the role of big money in elections – even though their effort was a failure at that point, and McCain’s own record on the issue was messy.

“The former prisoner-of-war and the former Rhodes Scholar are the odd couple,” said Senator Ted Kennedy, in a transcript of his remarks from the award ceremony published by the JFK Library archives. “But they are making common cause for true reform. And In doing so, they are bringing us a giant step closer to the ideal of clean elections, and a democracy that fully and fairly reflects the will of a free people.”

It was May 24, 1999, and McCain, Republican of Arizona and Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin were the joint recipients of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award for their so-far fruitless attempts at legislating campaign finance reform.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, more commonly known as McCain-Feingold, sought to ban soft money – unlimited, unregulated contributions made by corporations and wealthy donors to political parties – and eliminate the use of phony “issue” advocacy ads that really served as plugs for candidates. In May 1999 McCain and Feingold were in the midst of their third attempt to pass the legislation.

Feingold had barely won reelection the year before. During his 1998 reelection campaign he had refused to accept any soft money or have any issue ads created to support his campaign paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He pledged to limit his overall campaign spending to a dollar per voter, around $3.8 million. After making this pledge the race tightened considerably, bringing his opponent, two-term Republican Congressman Mark Neumann, within the margin of error in polls. The DSCC begged Feingold to let them fight back but he wasn’t breaking his pledge.

Feingold saw the award as added proof that despite criticism from the White House and Washington, he had done the right thing by sticking by his principles. For McCain, meanwhile, it was an opportunity to pledge to live up to his conversion to campaign finance reform, after a career marked by the kind of financial support he was now trying to ban.

McCain’s acknowledgement of his not-always-honorable reputation in his acceptance speech of the award was a veiled reference to the part he played in the Keating Five scandal. During his first year in Congress, at the request of Arizona developer Charles Keating, McCain and four other senators took part in meetings with federal bank regulators who were investigating Keating’s bank practices. The eventual bailout of Lincoln Savings and Loan, which was the Keating-owned financial institution being investigated, cost taxpayers $2.6 billion.

McCain and Keating had become friends after meeting at a Navy League dinner in Arizona in 1981. Keating raised money for both of McCain’s congressional elections, as well as his Senate bid in 1986, with contributions totaling $112,000 by 1987. The Senate Ethics Committee investigation of the Keating Five found McCain guilty of “poor judgement.”

“As long as the influence of special interests dominates political campaigns, it will dominate legislation as well,” McCain said in his acceptance speech, in what could be read as criticism of his own record. “Americans will never have a government that works as hard for them as it does for the special interests.”

Afterward, McCain’s campaign finance record was again the target of criticism when it was revealed in 2017, through data calculated by the Center for Responsive Politics and three writers from the New York Times Opinion section, that over the course of his career he had accepted $7.74 million from the National Rifle Association.[1] This figure includes both money directly donated to McCain and money spent on behalf of his candidacy by the NRA. Despite that help, it should be noted, he broke with the NRA line in 2015, when voted in favor of the bill requiring universal background checks for purchasing guns.

The McCain-Feingold bill campaign finance bill was introduced for the third time on January 19, 1999 after previous attempts in 1995 and 1998. Feingold’s chief counsel, Robert Schiff, said he felt defeated after they lost yet another cloture motion. He remembers Feingold turning to him and saying, “You lose and lose and lose and lose again, and then you win. But you’ve only got to win once.” By the end of June, the legislation had once again died, victim to filibusters led by the reform’s main opponent, Senator Mitch McConnell.

It would be another three years before McCain and Feingold managed to re-introduce campaign finance legislation onto the Senate floor, and another year for that legislation to be signed into law, but in the end, they won.

It was not until August 28, 2008, after McCain won the Republican nomination for president, that the John F. Kennedy Library digitized and uploaded his acceptance speech from the Profiles in Courage award ceremony to the library’s YouTube channel.[2] The library apparently thought the video was now of public interest. It didn’t help McCain. In November, he lost.

[1] David Leonhardt, Ian Prasad Philbrick and Stuart A. Thompson, “Thoughts and Prayers and N.R.A. Funding,” The New York Times, October 4, 2017.

[2] “John McCain Receives Profile in Courage Award,” speech, JFK Library, August 28, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThP6haGWagQ