WASHINGTON -- The world seems already a lesser place with the passing of Sen. John McCain.
The ensuing deluge of accolades and tributes – notwithstanding the president’s limp and late acknowledgment of McCain’s service to the nation – has revealed a level of reverence we don’t see often. Despite traits and qualities that sometimes earned McCain enemies among friends, the past few days have been filled with a sense that we’ve lost something more than the man; we’ve lost one of the few remaining remnants of the American honor code.
A stalwart patriot who gave nearly his all to the country he so loved, McCain reminded us of the values that formed a nation – hard work, self-sacrifice, bravery, strength and goodness of intention and spirit. McCain’s life’s work embodied all of these at various times, and we release him from Earth’s bonds with not a little trepidation that we won’t see his likes again.
His courage, primarily, seems to have set him apart from most other late notables. That, and his toughness, which was recognized even by the former director of the North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp where McCain spent more than five years. Retired Col. Tran Trong Duyet remarked on his former captive’s death by recalling how much he liked him personally “for his toughness and strong stance,” and grew fond of him later for his efforts to build relations between Vietnam and the U.S.
McCain fared less well with the president of the United States, who has behaved like a vengeful brat the past few days. Perhaps he is aiming for consistency rather than compassion, or maybe he’s simply undone by the inevitable contrasts – a larger-than-life hero vs. the trite bully whom even pulpits find distasteful. It was just three years ago that Donald Trump cast doubt on McCain’s heroism, telling a Family Leadership Council summit in Iowa that he was a hero only because he was captured: “I like people that weren’t captured,” said the future president.
Trump also once demeaned all Vietnam vets by telling Howard Stern in 1997 that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases was “my personal Vietnam.” For good measure, Trump added, “I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”
And this is our commander in chief, who this week couldn’t cough up a kind word for McCain – nor maintain the White House flag at half-staff for more than a day – until, apparently, he could no longer bear the torture of harsh critics shoving condemnation under his thin skin.
What made McCain a hero isn’t that he endured immense suffering. It doesn’t take a hero to be shot down or captured. We tend to overuse the term these days. The definition of a hero is someone who supercedes the ordinary call of duty and puts his or her own life in peril, or takes a dangerous risk, for the sake of another.
McCain was a hero because he refused early release when it was offered as a propaganda strategy once his captors learned that his father was a Navy admiral. McCain repeatedly declined, saying he would go only if those captured before him were also released. This singular act of self-abnegation is no one’s to question, least of all Trump’s, whose military title is so misplaced that one marvels at the self-control of military leadership, for many of whom nausea must be a constant companion.
No question, McCain could be difficult. He occasionally vexed his fellow Republicans by voting against them, notably in a stage-crafted thumbs-down on the Senate floor last summer when he returned to Washington to vote against the repeal of Obamacare. Sometimes he seemed to relish his “maverick” designation perhaps too much. And he wasn’t always wise, as when he surrendered to pressure and selected then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate, rather than Joe Lieberman, whom he preferred.
Strangely, toward the end, he was viewed by many as part of the establishment swamp that Trump came to drain. He was a hawkish, pro-immigration centrist when the GOP base was increasingly becoming a hard-right, isolationist bulwark against civility, dignity and the reality of globalization. Thus, McCain and Trump were full-throated foes, each standing his ground on opposing shores of American rectitude.
It is a tragedy that McCain, the warrior-hero, should exit the stage just when his model of citizenship is so needed. But perhaps by his leaving and the eulogies to follow, more Americans will recognize what it really takes to make America great again – and who clearly doesn’t get it.
Kathleen Parker writes a twice-weekly column on politics and culture for The Washington Post. She received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary In 2010. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2018 The Washington Post Writers Group