Video & full text: Flake's farewell Senate speech
In farewell remarks to Senate colleagues, retiring Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake warned that democracies around the world, including the U.S. face uncertain futures as an "authoritarian impulse reasserts itself globally, and global commitment to democracy seems to now be on somewhat shaky ground."
Returning to themes he made in previous floor speeches, Flake said that American democracy is unhealthy and that the threats to it "from within and without are real." He also reflected on a 1990 address by Czech President Vaclav Havel, calling it "a turning point in his civic education" and a reminder of the responsibilities that come with American power.
The test of his remarks, as released by his office:
I would like to begin today by noting that had the people of Arizona and America been truly lucky, my mother or father would have served in the United States House and Senate.
Everything I know about what matters most in life I first learned at their dinner table. But for many reasons — they were otherwise occupied raising and feeding eleven kids, working the land running cattle to keep the F-Bar business going, and serving their church and community daily, and in ways too many to count — my parents were too meaningfully engaged in life to detour into something that can sometimes be so frivolous as politics.
So you got their son instead.
And I rise today to say that it has been the honor of my life to represent my home – Arizona - in the United States Senate, and before that, in the House of Representatives. That is, it's been the honor of my life after being Dean and Nerita's son, Cheryl's husband, and Ryan's, Alexis's, Austin's, Tanner's, and Dallin's father.
Through eighteen years in Washington, our kids grew up thinking it was normal to have their faces plastered on campaign signs along the roadside when election time rolled around.
They were dragged to countless fundraisers and campaign events. They were used to having their dad join them, sort of, with a choreographed wave on C-Span at dinnertime.
They spent summers in Washington catching fireflies and voting with their dad on the House floor. They served as interns and Congressional Pages. Much of it they enjoyed, some of it they endured, and through all of it they were not just good sports, but were extraordinarily understanding and supportive.
And Cheryl — well, Cheryl is the rock on which our family is built.
Her strength, equanimity, endless patience and love — her good humor even when congressional life wasn't always funny, and her belief, when disbelief would have been perfectly reasonable — these are but a few of a long list of things that have me simply awestruck at my wife.
I think all of us who presume to hold these positions owe someone who loves us a debt that we can never, ever repay. And if they are not to be repaid then they can at least be properly recognized — Cheryl, that girl I met on that faraway beach so long ago, our wonderful children, my brothers and sisters and our extended families.
John McCain often joked that the only way I ever got elected to anything was because of my hundreds of siblings and thousands of cousins. Well, the truth hurts, I reckon — Senator McCain might have been on to something there.
Today, I am filled with gratitude. Grateful for the privilege of loving and being loved by those people I just mentioned, and of serving the state and the country that I love as well. Grateful beyond measure, and luckier than I deserve to be.
As so I leave here grateful and optimistic. I will always treasure the friendships that began here, and the kindnesses shown to me and my family by all of you, my colleagues. And I will forever cherish the work of our country that we were able to do here together. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all.
As I stand here today, I am optimistic about the future, but my optimism is due more to the country that my parents gave to me than it is due to the present condition of our civic life.
We of course are testing the institutions of American liberty in ways that none of us likely ever imagined we would — and in ways that we never should again.
My colleagues, to say that our politics is not healthy is something of an understatement.
I believe that we all know well that this is not a normal time, that the threats to our democracy from within and without are real, and none of us can say with confidence how the situation that we now find ourselves in will turn out.
Over the past two years, I have spoken a great deal on that subject from this chamber, and there will be time enough later to return to it in other settings.
But in the time I have here today, and with your indulgence, I would instead like to speak somewhat more personally.
As the authoritarian impulse reasserts itself globally, and global commitment to democracy seems to now be on somewhat shaky ground, I have been thinking a lot recently about the American commitment to democracy — where it comes from, and how, if the circumstances were right, it might slip away.
And this got me thinking back to when I was a much younger man, and had the privilege of witnessing the birth of a new democracy in Africa.
When I was about half the age that I am now, for my church mission, I went to South Africa and Zimbabwe and fell in love with the people of those countries.
When Cheryl and I were drawn back to southern Africa a few years later for a job, we were in Windhoek, Namibia, in February of 1990, at the very moment that much of the world enslaved by totalitarianism was throwing off its shackles, and the "free world" that the United States had lead since World War II was growing exponentially.
The Soviet Union was in a glorious free fall, shedding republics seemingly by the day, and Eastern Europe was squinting out into the light of liberation for the first time in forty years. Free markets and free minds were sweeping the world.
Freedom was breaking out in the Southern Hemisphere as well. The country where I was sitting that morning was itself only days old.
In November 1989, the same week the Berlin Wall fell, Namibia had held its first election as an independent nation, freed from the apartheid administration of South Africa.
This came to pass in no small part because of leadership from the United States, through the United Nations.
Just days earlier, an awe-inspiring document had been drafted only blocks away from where I sat in Windhoek — a new democracy's founding constitution, the inspiration for which had been the marvel of free people everywhere and those who aspire to be free, the United States Constitution.
At the time, I was in Africa working for the Foundation for Democracy, trying to ensure that Namibia emerged from the process of gaining its independence as a democratic country.
In my role at the foundation, I evangelized for democracy and democratic values, the benefits of which had been a given for me for my entire life.
I can safely say, though, that I learned more about democracy from the lives of those around me who aspired to it, rather than those who experienced it as a birth-right.
As I sat there in the brand-new African democracy, I read the speech that the playwright and new president of a newly democratic Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, had just delivered before a joint session of the United States Congress, right across the way in the House chamber.
Havel, who had spent much of the previous decade in a communist dungeon and whose last arrest as a dissident had been a mere four months before, was quite astonished to find himself president of anything, much less the country of his oppressors.
I sat there in Africa and read Havel's speech — an encomium to democracy, a love letter to America, literary and inspiring — and I was overcome by his words.
There is nothing quite like the sensation of having someone who has been stripped of everything but his dignity reflecting the ideals of your own country back at you, in such a way that you see them more clearly than ever before, and maybe for the first time. In some ways, that man knows your country better than you do.
I can now only imagine how surreal it must have felt for Havel as he stood before the entire Congress, the president's cabinet, the diplomatic corps, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff assembled before him in the House chamber in our Capitol Building, with the vice president and the Speaker of the House behind him, all standing in a sustained ovation, a deep show of respect from the oldest democracy on earth to the newest, whose leader had been a political prisoner just a season earlier.
Havel soberly poured out his gratitude to the United States for the sacrifices that our country had made in liberating Europe once again and for the moral example of its leadership around the world in opposing the Soviet Union, "the country," he said, "that rightly gave people nightmares."
Havel's awed appreciation for the values that too many of us might take for granted bought home to me, an American in my mid-twenties sitting there in Africa, the power of the American example to the whole world.
And the humbling responsibilities that come with that power. It is no exaggeration to say that Havel's disquisition on democracy before Congress that day in 1990 was a turning point in my civic education.
Havel similarly called out to the whole world from Washington that day in early 1990, with grace and without rancor, but for one mistaken prophecy, that to me now reads as tragic, especially in the context of the here and now.
At the time, as the wall fell and the Soviet bloc that had been encased in Stalinism thawed, it was a vogue among some historians, scholars, and others to declare "the end of history"—that the big questions had been settled, that liberal democracy was triumphal and inexorable, and that the decline of the impulse to enslave whole countries was also inexorable. Freedom had won, it was said, and forever.
The historian Francis Fukuyama, who had coined "the end of history" in an essay the year before, was much in demand, and it is likely that Havel would have been inspired by the fervor, which would explain this passage from his speech:
"I often hear the question: How can the United States of America help us today? My reply is as paradoxical as the whole of my life has been. You can help us most of all if you help the Soviet Union on its irreversible but immensely complicated road to democracy."
Of course, history was not over, and the road to democracy is not irreversible—not in Moscow, not in America, not anywhere.
After erecting a Potemkin village of democracy for an agonizing decade or so, the Russians thrust forward a strongman amid the chaos, a strongman who was determined to reassemble the pieces of a broken empire, in the process strangling Russian democracy in its cradle.
Vladimir Putin would go on to be president and he is president still, and just as he hijacked democracy in his own country, he is determined to do so everywhere.
Denial of this reality will not make it any less real. This is something that is staring us in the face, right now, as we are gathered here today.
As we in America – during this moment of political dysfunction and upheaval - contemplate the hard-won conventions and norms of democracy, we must continually remind ourselves that none of this is permanent, and that it must be fought for constantly.
Civilization and the victories of freedom—history itself—are not a matter of once achieved, always safe. Vaclav Havel lived this.
The lovers of democracy I met in Namibia lived this. Our children, whose rights and prerogatives have never before been in doubt, are for the most part unaware of it. But we are being powerfully reminded just how delicate all of this is—right now.
The stability of tested alliances, the steadiness of comportment, and the consistency of words and deeds sum up the best of water's-edge postwar American consensus on foreign policy.
It might seem that all of this has lately been tossed around like pieces on a board, but it is important to remember that we have seen tumult and trial before, and it is the genius of the architects of our liberty that we can withstand it all and emerge stronger for it.
What struck me in Namibia that day with such force that it has stayed with me ever since, is how vital a beacon the United States is and has always been to the peoples of the world— both to those who are already free and to those who suffer tyranny.
Mr. President, that is a solemn obligation that we have as Americans.
Let us recognize from this place here today that the shadow of tyranny is once again enveloping parts of the globe. And let us recognize as authoritarianism reasserts itself in country after country that we are by no means immune.
I stand here today recognizing that have had the good fortune during my time in the Senate to have been surrounded by supremely smart and dedicated staff, some of whom have worked with me for the entire 18 years in Washington.
My chiefs of staff – Steve Voeller, Margaret Klessig, Matt Specht, Chandler Morse and Roland Foster have ably supervised a legislative team that included people over the years as Colleen Donnelly, Helen Heiden, Chuck Podalak, Kris Kiefer, Sarah Towles, Emily Nelson, Brian Canfield, Blake Tonn, Flaka Ismaili, Chance Hammock, Matt Sifert, Colin Timmerman, Melanie Lehnhardt, Hannah Grady, Brian Kennedy, Katie Jackson, James Layne, Andrea Jones, Kunal Parikh, Gary Barnett, Michael Fragoso and so many others, who have drafted substantive legislation and crafted consequential amendments that have been signed into law.
My schedulers, office managers and press shop have been asked to explain a lot over the years, including my penchant for marooning myself on deserted islands, sometimes with people like Senator Martin Heinrich, or forced to explain why I had been chased by elephants in Mozambique with Senator Chris Coons. People like Celeste Gold, Meagan Shepherd, Caroline Celley, Megan Runyan, Christine Chucri, Michael Christifulli, Jacob McMeekin, Jason Samuels, Brownyn Lance, Liz Jones, Dan Mintz, Krista Winward, Jonathan Felts, Elizabeth Berry, and many more.
They have kept me largely out of controversy, if not out of elevators, during my time in office.
Dedicated caseworkers in my state offices have helped countless Arizonans with matters from immigration to Veterans issues to social security.
I am frequently stopped in airports and grocery stores and thanked for the good work done by my staff. Thank you to Buchanan Davis, Mary Baumbach, Julie Katsel, Melissa Martin, Mike Nelson, Jeremy Thompson, Michael Vargas, Chris Stoller, Bob Brubaker, Blake Farnsworth, Chelsea Lett, Elizabeth Bustamante-Lopez and so many others for such dedicated constituent work over the years.
To all who have served in my office: I will miss your wise counsel, but most of all your friendship. Thank you.
Mr. President, as I give this last speech from this chamber I cannot help but look back on my maiden speech given in the Senate six years ago.
In it I talked about how the 12 newly elected Senate freshmen in 2012 were invited to the National Archives and taken to the legislative vault where we viewed the original, signed copy of the first bill enacted by Congress, as well as other landmark pieces of legislation and memorabilia.
Oaths of allegiance signed by Revolutionary War soldiers, witnessed by General Washington, documents and artifacts related to the civil war, segregation, women's suffrage and the civil rights movement were also on hand.
I noted then that it was an affirmation to me of the tumultuous seas through which our ship of state has sailed for more than 200 years, with many brilliant and inspired individuals at the helm, along with personalities ranging from mediocre to malevolent. But our system of government had survived them all.
I noted then and echo today that serious challenges lie ahead, but any honest reckoning of our history and our prospects will note that we have confronted and survived more daunting challenges than we now face. Ours is a durable, resilient system of government, designed to withstand the foibles of those who from time to time occupy this place, including yours truly.
So, as I start a new chapter in the coming weeks, I am grateful for having had the privilege of serving here.
It is my sincere hope that those this in this body will always remember the words of Lincoln: "We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. The way forward, he said, is "plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud and God will forever bless.
I yield the floor.
Jeff Flake, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Arizona.