I can think of only one living American politician who can compare to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in physical and moral courage, in international stature, and in length of career and breadth of accomplishments: President George H.W. Bush, who was shot down as a young pilot in World War II, who went to serve in Congress, the CIA, the vice presidency and the presidency and, like McCain, represents time-honored virtues. Aside from him, everyone else is going to come up short. That said, there are people worthy of expressing admiration and respect for McCain — two presidents who will speak Saturday at a memorial service, and former vice president Joe Biden, who spoke eloquently on Thursday.
And then there were the three who spoke on Friday. You had to control your gag reflex watching Vice President Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) extol McCain’s greatness as he was accorded the honor of lying in state.
Consider Pence for a moment. He began with a ludicrous declaration that broke all records for disingenuousness: “The president asked me to be here on behalf of a grateful nation, to pay a debt of honor and respect to a man who served our country throughout his life, in uniform and in public office. It’s my great honor to be here.” President Trump despised McCain and routinely mocked him. Suggesting that Pence was there to represent Trump would require him to insult and mock McCain. Pence accepted the vice presidency and stuck with Trump despite the “Access Hollywood” tape, despite Trump’s denigration of McCain’s service, despite overt racism and contempt for human rights. He has not batted an eye over the hush-money payments to women, the attacks on the rule of law, the evisceration of decorum. Only in Washington could such a spineless creature sally forth to declare McCain a hero.
To call McCain a hero is to recognize his heroic qualities, of which Trump has none. You can worship Trump or admire McCain; it’s metaphysically impossible to do both. Meghan McCain’s glare was an appropriate reaction to Pence’s hypocrisy.
McConnell acknowledged McCain as a “generational leader in the Senate.” McConnell said that McCain represented all the values the Capitol stands for. But what does McConnell stand for? He has accommodated Trump, ignoring or rationalizing his worst behavior. McConnell personally destroyed the comity in the Senate by denying Judge Merrick Garland a hearing and then extinguishing the filibuster for Supreme Court justices. He has refused to protect the rule of law by preventing a bill protecting the special counsel from reaching the floor. In short, he too is everything McCain is not, and has presided over the very changes in the Senate that McCain despised. McCain, with all his soul, cared for and fought for the Constitution, the dignity of all men and women and the basic values we hold dear. McConnell cares about power, ready to enable Trump at every turn. There is no principle for him beyond winning.
And then there was Ryan, come to pay his respects. When he repeated McCain’s admonition that “our identities and sense of worth were not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves,” you wondered whether Ryan is capable of self-reflection. He lauded McCain: “The sense of purpose that a battle joined can bring. The common humanity that burns in each of our hearts. . . . This is one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced.” When exactly has Ryan exemplified those qualities? When has he demonstrated an ounce of courage to do what is right rather than expedient?
When Ryan urged us “to stand up and to embrace the cause of [McCain’s] life,” you wondered when and how Ryan will manage to do this. Might he remove Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) from chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, which Nunes has used to smear our intelligence community and the FBI? Perhaps he’d actually hold a hearing on the grotesque conflicts of interest and emoluments clause violation that Trump has committed? Don’t hold your breath. Instead of the causes dear to McCain — the rule of law, simple decency, the obligation to defend the country against abuses of power — Ryan has again and again taken the road of least resistance. He is quite simply a moral coward.
I suppose having this trio speak was the trade-off for allowing McCain to lie in state. In singing his praises, however, they demonstrated just how small, how weak they are. In the shadow of a giant like McCain, they should feel a pang of shame.