It is almost certain that in the not-too-distant future, those who loved and honored Arizona Sen. John McCain will wish that his final farewell, and the media coverage that accompanied it, had ignored the political heat of the moment and not so stridently focused on contrasts with President Trump. McCain deserved the spotlight on the totality of his life, rather than his differences with the man who happened to be in the White House when he died.
Instead, contrary to numerous reviews, the tributes to McCain fell far short of unifying the country, and too often came across as yet another opportunity for many in the media, the Democrats and the #NeverTrump brigade to marshal their forces against the president. A New York Times headline was representative of many that summarized the unfortunate pettiness of the occasion: “How McCain got the last word against Trump.”
Is getting the last word really any kind of measure of a life well-lived?
Neither McCain, before he passed, nor those close to him were inclined to forgive Trump for his sins against the senator. Reports say that McCain made clear that Trump should be excluded from his services, and speaker after speaker took jabs at the president, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly.
A chance for real unity — which by definition would be inclusive of Trump and his millions of supporters — was missed. Admittedly, it would have meant turning the other cheek to a degree that few of us are capable of demonstrating.
It would have required John McCain to forgive Donald Trump, perhaps even with an invitation to the president to play some appropriate formal role in his services. In a political environment where there are constant calls to tone down the rhetoric and lower the temperature, such a final act of harmony from such an obstinate warhorse as McCain may well have motivated others — perhaps even Trump himself — to follow his example.
McCain’s faith was Christianity, and part of the Lord’s Prayer asks God to “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Forgiveness in its purest form is offered even when it is not deserved, wanted or requested. It is among the most difficult ideals to embrace because it is so contrary to human nature.
Forgiving Trump was a lot to ask of McCain and his family. Of all the rude and crude things Trump is known to have said, arguably the worst was his comment that McCain was considered a war hero only because he was captured and, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump survived it only because McCain was never the most beloved Republican by the grass roots of the GOP. After all, early in Trump’s presidential run, it was McCain who said Trump had “fired up the crazies.” Not surprisingly, after his death, polling showed McCain significantly more popular with Democrats than Republicans.
But McCain’s military service alone, especially his years of physical and mental torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, deserves everyone’s respect, regardless of any political disagreements that followed. McCain without question was a war hero and had earned his country’s — and his president’s — appreciation. That Trump refused to give McCain his due, and did so only grudgingly after his death, is a slight not easily forgiven — and it wasn’t.
And so, in the end, for all the retrospectives and analyses claiming that McCain’s passing demonstrated how our nation can come together, it sadly did no such thing. In death, McCain held tightly to his grudge against Trump and merely offered a stage for yet another protest — just in more somber tones than usual.
Nothing has changed. Trump gets punched, and he punches back harder, because no one will out-punch him. It’s futile to strike at Trump with insults and invectives, because he is the master of that realm. But how often do those who fault Trump for his combativeness choose to follow his lead, rather than lead by their own, better example?
McCain will rightly be remembered for his courage and perseverance under extreme duress, and, by many, for his political independence and reputation as “the maverick of the Senate.”
We are still waiting to see who will be remembered for the sacrifice of pride, ego and self-interest necessary to return civil discourse to our political landscape. That our president won’t do it does not preclude others from leading the way instead, an opportunity that was lost last week.