Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Capitol Hill in October. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

At long last, have they left no sense of decency?

White House official Kelly Sadler, during a meeting Thursday, had this to say about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for opposing President Trump’s CIA nominee over her failure to condemn torture: “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.”

Also Thursday, on Fox Business Network, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney had this to say about the torture of McCain, who was shot down over Hanoi with grievous wounds, but refused release to deny his captors a propaganda victory: Torture “worked on John. That’s why they call him ‘Songbird John.’ ”

And three days earlier, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a Trump cheerleader, declared the terminally ill McCain was “ridiculous” to prefer that Trump, who has belittled McCain and his heroism, not attend his funeral.

Hatch, Sadler, and the host of the Fox Business show have all apologized, as they should. But how did we let partisanship take us to this ugly place?

A White House official dismissed John McCain’s brain cancer at a closed-door meeting May 10. (Reuters)

McCain is still with us, and this is no obituary. But as Trump loyalists besmirch this good man, I thought I would put in writing what I have often thought over the years: John McCain is the single greatest political leader of our time. He is, in a way, not of our time, for his creed — country before self — is unfamiliar to many who serve in office and utterly foreign to the man in charge.

Only once during the nearly quarter of a century I’ve been covering politics did I think I could work for a politician, and that politician was McCain. I first got to know him in early 1999, when there were just a few of us driving around New Hampshire with him in an SUV, before the “Straight Talk Express” rolled. Had he beaten George W. Bush (he surely would have defeated Al Gore), and had he been president on Sept. 11, 2001, I know he would have done great things with the national unity Bush ultimately squandered.

I’ve had a closer relationship with McCain than with other politicians. I remember flying with him and Cindy McCain to Phoenix during the 2000 campaign, talking about sports, music, a war buddy — and the issue that defined him: removing the corrupting influence of money from politics. That’s why so many liked him even if they disagreed on the issues: With McCain, everything was going to be on the level.

I believed, perhaps naively, that in the free marketplace of ideas, uncorrupted by special interests, we would usually arrive at a sensible consensus. A generation after Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) inspired his “Clean for Gene ” followers, McCain inspired me.

On my Bush-Gore election ballot, I wrote in McCain. When I saw him later in the Senate, I’d greet him as “Mr. President.” He’d reply by calling me “Mr. Pulitzer.” I took pride in 2009, when McCain read aloud a column of mine on the Senate floor and called me “one of my favorite columnists.” He regretted that a few months later, when I took him to task for momentarily shedding his “maverick” ways, and he tried to disavow me.

There have been many such moments of disagreement and disappointment: when he put Sarah Palin on his ticket in 2008; when he took a hard-right turn in 2010 to fight off a primary challenge; and when another tough primary in 2016 led him to go easy on Trump.

But the Mac always came back, and never more forcefully than over the past 16 months. In his forthcoming book, he labels “unpatriotic” the “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” His single bravest moment may have been earlier, though, when he angered supporters in 2008 by taking the microphone from a woman at a campaign rally who had called Barack Obama an “Arab.” Said he: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with.”

McCain has, in achievement, equaled or surpassed his mentors and models, Barry Goldwater and Mo Udall. Formally launching his 2008 campaign in Prescott, Ariz., where both men had roots, McCain invoked the friendship of these ideological opposites, who “taught me to believe that we are Americans first and partisans second.”

I was with McCain when he returned to Prescott for his last stop of that campaign. Again invoking Udall and Goldwater, McCain retold Udall’s joke about Arizona being “the only state where mothers don’t tell their children they can grow up to be president.”

In Phoenix for a wedding last weekend, I made a pilgrimage north, past the turnoff for Prescott and on to McCain’s beloved Sedona. Driving and walking among its red-rock hills, I reflected for hours on the man who had so often spoken of that beautiful place, and who so often had been my antidote to cynicism. As I write this, there are tears on my cheeks.

Godspeed, John McCain. You were not to be president, but you are my hero.

Twitter: @Milbank

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