Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, gave his final speech in that capacity Thursday.
It was a heartfelt speech, and it got him a bipartisan standing ovation. Friday he announced that he’s quitting Congress before his term is up; a primary challenger defeated him in June.
Cantor was the only Republican Jew in Congress and the most senior Jewish lawmaker in U.S. history.
His speech is below. Several points:
–Cantor never deemphasized his Jewishness, and he does not do so here. He mentions early on his grandparents flight from repression, a history that clearly has shaped his political outlook.
–He includes a gracious nod to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, with whom Cantor often collaborated on pro-Israel initiatives. It comes in the context of his concerns about the diminishing of American leadership abroad. He made this point a lot in the months prior to his primary defeat, explicitly criticizing President Obama, but also implicitly targeting a festering isolationism within his own party.
–Cantor rode the Tea Party wave into the Republican victory in 2010, and embraced some of that movement’s resistance to cooperation with Democrats. He and Obama did not get along. Yet here he seems wistful; he insists that the Congresses he helped lead were not as deeply divided as reports would have it.
Here’s the speech:
“Thank you Mr. Speaker.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Majority Leader of this distinguished body. I look around this remarkable chamber, and I see so many friends and colleagues who have inspired me, and who have inspired this Congress to do great things for the American people.
“Walking into this building and walking onto this floor is something that excited me every day since I was first elected to Congress. As it should. Not one of us should ever take for granted the awesome honor and responsibility we have to serve our fellow Americans.
“This is a privilege of a lifetime. I think of the sacrifices that helped me rise to serve the people of Virginia’s 7th District. My grandparents fled religious persecution in Europe in order to find a better life. My Grandmother, a young Jewish widow, was soon raising my Dad above a grocery store in Richmond, just trying to make ends meet. And so it goes, two generations later, her grandson would represent part of what was James Madison’s seat in the House and then go on to serve as its Majority Leader. I have truly lived the American Dream.
“That is what this country is supposed to be about: dreaming big; believing that each generation can do better than the last. Unfortunately, we have seen that dream erode in recent years, and our nation faces many challenges. Too many are left wondering if we can be an America that works, an America that leads.
“Too many children are condemned to a bad school because of the zip code they live in. Being poor in America should not mean being deprived of a good education, and we all must continue fighting for these kids. This is the civil rights issue of our time.
“Even after kids graduate high school, too many can’t afford college or access the skills they need to join a new and dynamic workforce. Government policies often increase these costs, and restrict opportunities. During my time here, we have made some progress on some of these issues, but frankly, not enough.
“One of my proudest moments was watching the president sign into law the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act sponsored by Congressmen Gregg Harper and Peter Welch. Prioritizing federal dollars towards finding cures and treatments for disease can enrich and even save lives. The added benefit? Cures can help alleviate healthcare costs.
“All the while, too many moms and dads who are healthy and stuck without a job, or barely getting by in one that doesn’t match their potential. This Congress, the House has passed many bills to help create jobs and opportunities for those who desperately need them. I hope more of those bills will make it to the President’s desk before year’s end.
“Our nation and our economy cannot meet its full potential if we are not leading abroad. I look around at colleagues on both sides of the aisle – at Chairmen, ranking members, at my good friend Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer – all of whom have soberly and seriously helped ensure a strong foreign policy so that our nation can lead in order to keep our people safe.
“Yet, never before have I been more worried about the prospects of that peace due to our diminished engagement on the world stage. Instability and terror seem to be coming from every corner of the globe. The Middle East is in chaos, Iran is marching towards a nuclear weapon, Russia has reverted to a Cold War footing and invaded Ukraine.
“America does lead in so many areas, including innovation, scientific discovery, and medicine. But we must also make leadership abroad a priority. I shudder to think what the world looks like in five years for us and our allies if we don’t steel our resolve and stand tall with those who stand with us.
“We don’t always see eye to eye, even within our own parties, in this chamber. But that is how it is supposed to be. Our founders did not design a rubber stamp.
“This Congress, we have found ways to agree on much more than was ever reported, with many bills passing this house in a bipartisan way. For that, much of the credit goes to the hardworking staff that quietly works around the clock to help us do our job. I’d especially like to thank my team, starting with Chief of Staff Steve Stombres and my Deputy Chief Neil Bradley, as well as our whole team for being there every day to assist members on both sides of the aisle to help them deliver on their legislative goals. Thank you.
“Mr. Speaker, I’d also like to thank you for all you’ve done. Thank you for the example of firm leadership that you show, and at the same time for not being afraid to show us all your kind heart and your soft spot from time to time. Mr. Speaker you reminded me yesterday that you and I have met with each other at least once a day every day that we’ve been in session for the past five years. For that Mr. Speaker, I thank you for your patience.
“I’d like to thank our Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers. She is as tough as she is compassionate, and her voice has so often helped our conference and this House.
“I’d like to recognize two of my colleagues and dear friends who I joined seven years ago to begin a fight for reform on behalf of the American people. To Chairman Paul Ryan – thank you for your dedication to finding solutions to the problems that face our government, but more importantly, thank you for your commitment to identifying those conservative solutions that actually help people find their path to the American Dream. I know your efforts will continue to impact America in a positive way.
“To my closest confidant and my good friend Kevin McCarthy, our new Majority Leader – I know you will make this institution proud. I will miss the daily challenges that we faced together at the leadership table, but I know that your leadership will serve as an inspiration for all of us.
“There are so many more members and staff on both sides of the aisle who have made my time here so rewarding. Many of you have become as close to me as family, and that is what has always sustained me while being away from my own family in Richmond. I know I speak for all of us when I extend a heartfelt thank you to the Capitol Police and the Sargent at Arms for all they do to protect us and our families.
“Finally, I want to thank my family – my wife Diana, her mother, my children, Evan, Jenna, and Mikey, my parents, my brothers, all of whom have made sacrifices so that I could serve in this chamber and as a member of leadership. They are my inspiration and they are the rocks on which I will always lean.
“Mr. Speaker, I close by once again thanking my colleagues for their service, I thank them for their friendship and warmth. And with that, I yield back.”