McCain’s Service Deserves a Fitting Memorial

(The Bloomberg View) -- John McCain was a giant of the Senate and a hero of the republic. The tributes that have been pouring forth from Republicans, Democrats and independents, which will culminate in a weekend of eulogies from past presidents and former colleagues, make that abundantly clear to all — save the current occupant of the Oval Office.

McCain’s lifetime of extraordinary public service, and of putting patriotism above partisanship, deserve more lasting recognition in Washington. Senator Chuck Schumer’s proposal to rename the Russell Senate Office Building for McCain is a good one. It deserves more support than it appears to be getting.

Senator Richard Russell, a Democrat from Georgia who served from 1933 to 1971, was a skilled legislator with many admirable accomplishments. He was also an avowed white supremacist who spent decades opposing civil-rights legislation. The question of whether Russell should be memorialized — a variety of other public buildings and places in Georgia are named for him — is contentious, and involves the larger debate over monuments to Confederate and segregationist leaders. But there’s a simple way to separate that debate, which won’t be resolved anytime soon, from the issue at hand. 

Congress should adopt a retroactive rule requiring that the naming of federal buildings come with a 50-year sunset clause. Times change, and the names of federal buildings can, too.

In 1972, the Senate named two office buildings that had been constructed decades prior, one for Russell and one for Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Nearly 50 years have since passed, and new giants of the Senate — not only McCain, but also Ted Kennedy and Pat Moynihan — have come and gone.

A 50-year sunset clause would allow for more new greats to be recognized. Critics will call this an attempt to erase men like Russell from the history books. It needn’t be that — and shouldn’t be that. A statue of him inside the building ought to remain, reminding visitors of his legacy, good and bad. In other buildings, plaques can provide information on their prior names, which can enrich public understanding of history. All names on federal public works should be subject to a similar sunset clause, and states would do well to adopt the same approach. And bear in mind: Congress could always vote to leave things as they are and not change a name.

McCain worked in the Russell building for 31 years. In a city torn by rancor and partisan division, there’s no better name than his to grace a Senate building. He was always a voice for civility and unity. In 50 years, the public can debate whether another exemplary public servant should be granted the honor of succeeding him.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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