If John McCain was destined to die, his timing, after two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, was impeccable. The eulogies for McCain’s courage, integrity, service, independence and other unique qualities echo stronger against the backdrop of Trump’s contrary traits. The songs and poems of praise for McCain enfold defiance against the president who selfishly and cruelly tormented him. The genuine grief at the passing of such a revered and respected figure in American politics is enhanced by a yearning for the values he represented, which are slowly disappearing from our collective lives.
No one was better suited than McCain to play the role of the anti-Trump. He was a scion of navy admirals, not real estate speculators. He volunteered to serve as a combat pilot in the U.S. Navy rather than evade service on a pretext of bone spurs. He was tortured to near-death in five and a half years of captivity in North Vietnam, while Trump thrived in New York on bombast and lechery. He devoted his life to serving the public rather than to wheeling, dealing and the cult of celebrity. He was true to the values that Trump disdains, and he worshipped his country instead of himself.
Trump’s vicious attacks on McCain, during and after the recent presidential campaign, epitomized the corruption of America’s soul. When in July 2015 Trump refused to recognize McCain’s sacrifice, a month after declaring his candidacy, by saying he preferred war heroes “who weren’t captured,” the ground was supposed to quake under his feet. Experts said Americans wouldn’t tolerate such blatant disparagement by a serial draft evader of a national treasure, but the rest was history to the contrary.
McCain’s America was vanquished: It fell to the mouth that spouted insults, profanities, vulgarity and complete self-absorption.
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McCain, like any politician, was far from perfect. In his first years in the Senate, he was embroiled in a corruption scandal from which he escaped by the skin of his teeth. He never met a bombing he did not endorse or a war he did not embrace, including the folly of Iraq. His capitulation to strategic advisers who urged him to choose Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 will live in infamy. It not only hurt McCain’s chances and forever sullied his reputation, but it opened the GOP’s front door to the blind nationalism, latent racism and sheer stupidity that Palin represented, which ultimately took over the Republican Party and paved Trump’s way to the White House. McCain also catered at times to the whims of the mob, but only rarely and in times of electoral duress.
McCain admired Israel with all his heart, but appreciation for his positions, which were widely praised in Israel on Sunday by both the left and the right, is in the eye of the beholder. He was an indefatigable backer of Israel’s security needs and a tireless supporter of its military campaigns, but he embraced most of the hard-line positions espoused by the Israeli right. He savaged the Palestinians at every turn, refused to endorse a two-state solution and repeatedly declared the peace process null, void and superfluous. He was an honorable man but a powerful opponent of the ideology and values of the Israeli left.
McCain was king of Arizona. He was elected three times in a row to the House of Representatives from the state’s 1st Congressional District, and chalked up another six wins in a row as the junior and then the senior senator from Arizona.
On the national level, however, he was a loser. He consistently topped the lists of prospective vice presidential candidates, only to be passed over for more disciplined and manageable rivals. He was beaten by George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign after a deplorably evil campaign that turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. McCain won the GOP race in 2008 but lost, with Palin’s help, to the supposedly unelectable, half-African-American Barack Obama.
Nonetheless, McCain epitomized politics, as most Americans would like them to be. He bucked party discipline and detested partisan polarization, cherished fairness and abhorred personal attacks. He repeatedly reached out across the aisle to his Democratic rivals in Congress to advance issues close to his heart, including immigration, gun control, campaign reform, human rights and opposition to torture. He championed army veterans, the families of missing soldiers and Native Americans. He voted for Bill Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees and single-handedly saved Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He was the perennial “maverick,” a term that traces its source to unbranded cattle in 19th century Texas, a loner who refused to toe the party line and felt free to follow his conscience.
McCain was no stranger to venomous attacks on his rivals, but he captured the hearts of his ideological adversaries in 2008 by refusing to embrace the demonization of Obama and by insisting that his Democratic rival was a decent and honorable man with whom he had sharp political differences. His sympathy for Obama, his refusal to bow to Trump’s malice and the very fact that he enjoyed the kind of reverence that Trump yearns for but will never achieve combined to turn McCain, even after his malignancy became known, into the president’s favorite whipping boy. McCain suffered the indignities but they came with a silver lining: In the eyes of Trump’s many critics, McCain became the president’s antithesis, a symbol of principled politics in a Trumpian age of degenerative corruption and endless lies.
McCain’s family has announced that he asked to be eulogized by Bush and Obama, the rivals who beat him but whom he continued to respect, and that Trump stay away from his funeral. Even in death, McCain sought to mark a red line between the bitterly contested politics that nonetheless upholds basic integrity, represented in his eyes by both Bush and Obama, and the darkness of trickery, viciousness and narcissism that Trump brought to the White House and imposed on McCain’s beloved Republican Party.
Trump’s banishment from McCain’s last rites, which are sure to move and unite all Americans except the president’s most rabidly partisan fans, comes at a time when Trump is politically besieged as never before, serving as a harsh blow to the president. This is McCain’s sweet revenge on the president he deplored: Even from his grave, he will have the last word.