Russell Senate Office Building Could be Renamed after John McCain

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Courtesy of Star and Stripes

By Alexander Santana

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently announced his plan to introduce a bill to the Senate that would rename the historic Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. after the late Senator and war hero John McCain (R-AZ).

McCain died in August 2018 at the age of 81 from brain cancer. Over the past few months colleagues have tried to find an appropriate way to honor the man who dedicated his life to the people of Arizona and the United States during times of war and peace. McCain played a prominent role in American politics for over three decades as Arizona’s longtime Senator and as the Republican Party’s 2008 presidential nominee against former Democratic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. As a naval pilot during the Vietnam War, McCain was shot down during his 23rd bombing mission on October 26, 1967 and was held captive as a prisoner of war under the communist North Vietnamese regime from October 1967 to March 1973. McCain was tortured and beaten regularly, but managed to survive and was released five a half years later on March 14, 1973.  

“I applaud Senator Schumer and the growing list of cosponsors,” said junior politics and pre-law major Griffin Namin, “John McCain is an American hero who should be remembered with this incredible honor. Senator McCain spent the majority of his life defending, serving, and protecting the American people. I can think of no better way to honor Senator McCain legacy than this.”

The 110-year-old Russell Building is the oldest of the three Senate office buildings and is known for its Beaux-Arts architectural style and past occupants. Presidents Warren G. Harding, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon all had offices in the Building when they were Senators during the 20th century. The Caucus Room on the third floor was the site of former Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign announcement. His brother, the late U.S. Attorney General and Senator from New York Robert F. Kennedy would also announce his presidential campaign in 1968 from the same room. In 2009 after the death of younger brother Ted Kennedy who served as a Senator from Massachusetts for 46 years the Senate renamed the caucus room after the three brothers.

Before his passing, McCain was the decisive no vote on legislation that would have repealed the 2010 Affordable Care Act. The decision to not vote along with a majority of his fellow party members was one example of many times that McCain would resist party leadership and show his independent streak. McCain became known as a “maverick” and President Donald Trump criticized McCain for the vote and has continued to do so after McCain died in 2018. Trump recently stated he “was never a fan of John McCain, and [he] never will be.”

At the time of McCain’s death, Schumer and McCain’s friend and then fellow Arizona Senator Jeff Flake both supported renaming the Russell Building after McCain but no bill was voted on. Flake thought renaming the building “would be a fitting tribute. There are many other things that we need to do, but that’s a good one. John McCain had his office just right near mine in the Russell Building, that’s where he was his entire time.” McCain’s Capitol Hill office was inside the Building on the second floor and the committee he oversaw as chairman, the Armed Services Committee, has its office on the second floor as well. Instead of renaming the entire building after McCain there was discussion of renaming the Armed Services Committee room after the former chairman or adding a portrait of McCain in the Senate Reception room outside the Senator chamber in the Capitol Building.

Some Senators are more hesitant about the name change. “We’ve honored John McCain, but Richard Russell was an icon,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL). “I didn’t serve with him, but he was an icon in his day,” he added.

The Russell Building was named in 1972 after the late Senator Richard Russell of Georgia who died in 1971 after almost 40 years of service. During his almost four decades in the upper chamber Russell held several powerful positions including President pro tempore, Appropriations Committee chairman, and Armed Services Committee chairman. Russell was a mentor to President Lyndon B. Johnson who previously served as a Senator from Texas and Senate Majority Leader. When Russell died the Senate approved naming the building after him in 1972 and a statue of him stands in the Building’s rotunda on the first floor. Russell was well known for supporting America’s national defense but also for a more controversial reason. Russell helped lead Southern opposition to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and supported racial segregation and co-authored the Southern Manifesto. Russell also filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 along with other Southern Democrats but it was successfully passed and signed into law by President Johnson.

“The late Senator Richard Russell Jr. was a noted segregationist and opponent to the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said Anthony Siller, a senior politics major from Arizona. “Erecting statues that honor the Confederacy, or naming a building after a person who is a committed racist are actions that only glorify a message that runs counter to the values of the United States. Senator McCain was an exemplar of American freedom, courage, and nobility. With the name of a Senate office building, we should be honoring someone like Senator McCain and not someone like Senator Russell.” 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of McCain’s closest friends in the Senate, said at the time of his death that he would “like to name the Pentagon after him just to get back at everybody.” Graham did state more seriously that he wasn’t sure of how best to honor McCain. “I don’t know what the right way to honor John is” Graham said. “In terms of naming stuff, here’s what I hope we’ll do, instead of worrying what we’ll name it — and we should name something — let’s be more like him.”

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