Republicans express reluctance towards Democrats' plan to rename Senate building after John McCain

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer suggested renaming a Senate office building after the late John McCain

By Matthew Rozsa
Published August 28, 2018 3:43PM (EDT)
Mitch McConnell (Getty/Drew Angerer)
Mitch McConnell (Getty/Drew Angerer)

An odd dynamic seems to exist in the Senate following the death of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. As the leadership of the Democratic Party is pushing for a Senate office building named after a Democratic senator be renamed in honor of McCain, a former Republican presidential candidate, Republican leadership in the Senate is pointedly refusing to acknowledge the suggestion.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is the one who has been pushing renaming the Richard Russell building over McCain shortly after his passing. According to The New York Times, Schumer's idea has gained traction because Russell, despite being an ardent supporter of popular liberal programs like the New Deal and free school lunches, was also a staunch segregationist who fought against equal rights for African-Americans throughout his lengthy political career. As a result, renaming the Senate Office Building after McCain would seem to exist in the same spirit as tearing down Confederate monuments in the South, making it clear that individuals who favored slavery and Jim Crow should not be honored in modern America.

But some Republicans disagree.

“We’ve honored John McCain, but Richard Russell was an icon,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., told The Washington Post. “I didn’t serve with him, but he was an icon in his day.”

Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue expressed a similar sentiment when asked by CNN:

This was an icon in the United States Senate. He was Lyndon Johnson’s close adviser. They did the Great Society together. So, people would criticize Richard Russell for maybe being on the wrong side of the integration movement, but my goodness he turned around and got the school lunch program done. He did that himself,” Perdue said, adding that Russell was also a stalwart on the Senate Armed Services Committee

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., told The New Times he’d “rather find another way” than rename the Russell building.

At the same time, McCain is openly loathed by President Donald Trump, and because of the president's continued popularity among the Republican base, it could be risky crossing his path by giving McCain such a major honor. Hence why Mitch McConnell delivered the following statement on the Senate floor on Tuesday:

In order to make sure we realize these intentions, I’d like to put together an official group that can collaborate and bring together ideas from current members, former colleagues and friends. It will be bipartisan — as only befits John’s legacy. And come to think of it, we should probably call it not a committee, but a gang. So I’m glad we’ll be able to form this gang to ensure that a suitable, lasting tribute becomes a reality.

Notice the absence of any specific reference to renaming the Russell building?

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It isn't that all Senate Republicans oppose renaming the Russell building after McCain. Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee have both expressed varying degrees of support, with the former offering to co-sponsor a renaming bill and the latter telling the Times, "Russell is someone who was obviously a huge figure, but it is an era that has gone by. We are in a new era now. We were asked very quickly about it, and I think it’s a great idea."

Given that a number of buildings, institutions and other areas of Georgia are named after Russell, it's not like renaming a Senate office building will alone erase his name from history. Then again, replacing Russell's name with McCain's on a Senate office building will at least send the message that the values for which he was most closely associated — loyalty to one's country, honesty and bipartisanship — will be honored, in theory if not in practice, even during an era in which they are openly threatened by the incumbent president.

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Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Chuck Schumer Donald Trump John Mccain Mitch Mcconnell Richard Russell