Contemplating the heroic life of Sen. John McCain, it was easy to think of him as the last true Republican — a politician who thought it his duty to elevate country over party. Elsewhere, hyper-partisanship and cowardice have become the norm in today’s GOP, scared to death of Fox News bluster and Donald Trump’s twitter feed.
As Hillary Clinton recently explained to Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” McCain sought personal alliances with Democrats because he wanted the U.S. Senate to function as the Constitution intended.
“He knew that the Senate couldn’t work if we didn’t work together,” Clinton said. “I think it was heartbreaking to him … as he said in the speech he gave right before he voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act … we need to cooperate. … He was so typically John in those remarks because he said stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on radio and TV and the internet. To hell with them, they don’t want anything done for the public good. He really understood in the marrow of his bones what it meant to be an American and how important it was for us to, yes, disagree and differ. But at the end of the day to come together, to work together, to trust each other to get things done.”
Indeed, a farewell message from McCain to his Arizona constituents emphasized exactly that: “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. … We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down.”
Meanwhile, the wall-builder sulked in his tent like a counterfeit Achilles, The Wall Street Journal reported, because he thought the national outpouring of grief over McCain’s death was “over-the-top and more befitting a president.” It took the cajolery of Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the protests of the VFW and American Legion to persuade Trump to put aside his jealousy of a dead man and lower the White House flag to half-staff for an American hero.
Has there ever been a more Trumpian moment?
I certainly never voted for McCain, nor ever would. Except in retrospect — Vietnam, Iraq — the man seemed never to see a war he didn’t like. Maybe he was half-joking when he went around singing “Bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” But only half.
McCain could also be something of a showman. His dramatic vote to save Obamacare rescued health insurance coverage for millions, and he milked the moment for everything that was in it.
Most of the time, however, he was a reliably partisan Republican, voting enthusiastically for the very Supreme Court justices whose Citizens United verdict dismantled McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms and handed the U.S. government over to the highest bidder.
Sen. McCain was a real piece of work: passionate, morally and physically brave. He laughed, and made others laugh, more than anybody in Washington. Some of his jokes could be pointed. In a 2008 presidential debate with Barack Obama, he made a sly reference to President George W. Bush’s naive remark about seeing Vladimir Putin’s soul: “I looked in Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters — a K, a G and B.”
His pointed rebuke of attempts to race-bait Obama or to participate in the shameful “birther” smear that Trump subsequently embraced may have cost him his shot at the presidency. McCain preferred to keep his honor.
For all of that, sometimes the nation needs a warrior, and McCain was definitely that. The Washington Post’s conservative columnist Max Boot got it exactly right: “Trump hated McCain and insulted him at every turn because McCain was everything Trump is not — and everything that we need in our politics today but tragically lack.”
Even so, if you keep your eyes open, you can see that American ideals of duty and honor haven’t succumbed to partisan rancor everywhere. Consider Paula Duncan, an outspoken Trump supporter and juror in the Paul Manafort trial, who explained to Fox News that despite her suspicion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s motives, the evidence against Donald Trump’s former campaign manager was “overwhelming.”
“Finding Mr. Manafort guilty was hard for me. … I really wanted him to be innocent, but he wasn’t,” she explained. Duncan wants people to understand that it wasn’t even a close call. But for one flaky juror, Manafort would have been convicted on all 18 counts of tax evasion and bank fraud.
Like Sen. McCain, Duncan did her civic duty proudly, driving to the courthouse every day in her “Make American Great Again” ball cap, although she now wishes Trump would change the slogan to “Make America Kind Again.”
Fat chance of that.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org