The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In death, John McCain shows an alternative to Trump

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. McCain died Saturday at 81. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

In death, Sen. John McCain is about to exact revenge on President Trump.

As McCain (R-Ariz.) ascends to heaven on an updraft of praise, Trump’s political hell on Earth will burn hotter. Through the wall-to-wall coverage of McCain’s life, and his memorial and burial that will take place over the next few days, Trump will become a bystander as our nation is given a reminder of the best of what it stands for, and the best of what it can be. The president and the rest of America are about to look in the mirror and see Trump’s opposite.

McCain lived a life of service to country; Trump lives in service of self. McCain exemplified sacrifice; Trump, indulgence. McCain played down his heroism; Trump boasts of imagined rescues into school buildings to save children from gunfire. McCain sought reconciliation with his enemies; Trump thrives on creating new ones. McCain was, in the words of his longtime aide and collaborator Mark Salter, a “romantic about his causes and a cynic about the world.” Trump is a cynic about both.

Perhaps McCain (and Salter, his co-writer) stated the contrast best in 2002, long before the age of Trump:  “Success, wealth, [and] celebrity, gained and kept for private interest, are small things. … But sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest, and you invest your life with the eminence of that cause, [and] your self-respect is assured.” Once McCain was asked what he wanted on his tombstone; he replied, “He served his country.” One imagines that Trump’s desired epitaph might be, “I did it my way.”

McCain’s death will serve as a distraction from Trump’s deepening legal and political jeopardy, but not in a way that will give him respite — although it could give him insight. Christmas is still months away, but Trump is about to be visited, not unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, by disturbing spirits who will use the example of McCain’s life to warn him of his own mortality.

Like Scrooge, who had to see his own callousness toward people, Trump will be forced to see his cynical and bitter comment about McCain again: “He is not a war hero.” But now that comment will be placed directly in the context of vivid memories from McCain’s past where he endured torture and refused early release from a Hanoi prison simply because he was an admiral’s son.

Like Scrooge, Trump will see other vivid contrasts between his narrow, selfish life and the expansive joy of a life lived in service. At McCain’s funeral, Trump will see Democrats and Republicans; most, if not all, former living presidents; and hundreds of lifelong friends sitting together in unity and celebration of a man, his service and ideals. Grown men and women will cry, because they loved McCain and what he stood for.

Can any man, even one as obtuse and self-involved as Trump, fail to see the meaning of McCain’s death for his own life? Scrooge himself finally gained insight from seeing his future laid bare: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

In the days ahead, one hopes Trump pays close attention to McCain’s course for clues about how to better live his own, for himself and his country.

Read more:

Jeff Flake: I am grateful for John McCain

The Post’s View: John McCain, the irreplaceable American

Mark Salter: John McCain spent his life serving the dignity of his fellow man

Jennifer Rubin: John McCain embodied time-honored virtues

Josh Rogin: Keeping up with John McCain

Max Boot: John McCain leaves the stage when we need him most