The Arizona Gift

By Mark Shields

August 17, 2019 5 min read

It approaches a year since Sen. John McCain departed these earthly precincts. He is rightly missed for his principled leadership, for his maverick ways and for his — now increasingly rare — ability to reach out and collaborate effectively with senators across the partisan divide. I miss all those qualities, but I miss John McCain, too, for his quick and self-effacing sense of humor.

McCain was first elected to the U.S. Senate from Arizona in 1986, succeeding the conservative legend Barry Goldwater, who chose to retire and served that year as chairman of McCain's winning campaign. As McCain told me the story, on election night, when his victory became apparent, he and Goldwater were together in a hotel room watching the returns, and Goldwater turned sentimental, telling McCain: "You know, John, if I had beaten Lyndon Johnson in 1964, you would not have spent all those years in that North Vietnamese prison." McCain, remembering the hawkish Goldwater's threats about taking the fight to Beijing, responded: "You're right, Barry. If you had won the White House, I wouldn't have spent all those years in prison in Hanoi. ... I would have spent them in prison in China."

When the public approval of Congress fell in national polls to just 13% positive, McCain cracked that such a low number meant Congress' support was down to "blood relatives and paid staffers." A month later, when a new poll showed Congress' favorable number had fallen to just 9%, McCain reported a phone call from his remarkable mother, Roberta, who was — this is not a misprint — born in 1912. Mrs. McCain was critical of what was going on on Capitol Hill, leading her son to conclude, "We're down to paid staff."

Arizona has generously given the nation elected leaders known for their keen humor. Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt launched a long-shot bid for his party's 1988 presidential nomination. At one of the endless candidates' cattle shows, Babbitt acknowledged his dark horse status by remarking, in his turn at the microphone, that all the press attention was pretty heady stuff: "For example, before tonight's dinner, I actually signed 11 autographs." Then, reaching into his pocket, Babbitt self-mockingly revealed: "I still have 10 of them."

There is a pattern here: Barry Goldwater ran for president and lost. So, too, in 1976, did the legendary Tucson Rep. Morris "Mo" Udall, followed by Babbitt's and McCain's own losing efforts in both 2000 and 2008. After his loss to Barack Obama in 2008, McCain quipped, "Arizona may be the only state in the country where mothers no longer tell their children they can grow up to be president."

Udall's wit was peerless. When, as a young Turk, he boldly challenged then-Speaker John McCormack in a secret ballot in the House Democratic Caucus only to lose by the lopsided margin of 178-58, Udall could still with a grin explain the difference between a caucus and a cactus: "On a cactus, the pricks are on the outside." It's true, according to Udall, that "the lion and the lamb can lie down together, but the lamb won't get much sleep." Never one to take himself too seriously, he prayed: "Oh Lord, help me to utter words which are gentle and tender, because tomorrow we may have to eat them."

But in the golden annals of Grand Canyon State humor, no one can really better the state's first U.S. senator, Henry Fountain Ashurst, who came to Washington in 1912, when Arizona was admitted to the Union. Shortly after his arrival, Ashurst spoke to his colleagues about the virtues of his home state: "This great new baby state is magnificent ... destined to join the pantheon of other splendid states in our fair union ... poised to become a veritable paradise. We need only two things: water and lots of good people." This prompted an elderly Vermont senator to respond: "If the gentleman from Arizona will forgive me, that's all they need in Hell."

Ashurst was the antithesis of self-importance: "The clammy hand of consistency has never rested for long on my shoulder." He dared to offer: "When I have to choose between voting for the people or voting for special interests, I always stick with the special interests. They remember. The people forget."

When his own career came to an unexpected end at the polls, Ashurst set the standard for graciousness: "The welfare of the United States, and the happiness of our people, does not hang on the presence of Henry F. Ashurst in the Senate. When that realization first came to me, I was overwhelmed by the horror of it, but now it is a source of infinite comfort." Wow. Thank you, Arizona.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

Photo credit: DaveDavidsoncom at Pixabay

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