Others who were fortunate enough to experience John McCain, as I was, have offered their tributes to him, many more eloquently than I ever could. Still, I feel honor bound to try, because, throughout his life, McCain was all about honor.
He was not a perfect man. As a reporter, I occasionally tangled with him, and he could display a nasty temper when crossed. But he also was very funny, quick with a devastatingly sarcastic quip. Although complex, he was simply the perfect example of a public servant who believed in public service. In other words, he was part of a dying breed, as his passing reminds us.
He leaves behind a country he loved with a passion, but one that has been tattered by those who have taken the politics he practiced and turned it into, well, why don’t we just let John McCain’s own words from his memoir describe the current president: “The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values. Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity.” If anything, that would be a John McCain understatement about a man he despised for repudiating everything to which he had devoted his life.
The feeling was mutual. While the world and our nation’s leaders struggled to find the words to pay a proper tribute, Trump’s initial response was a perfunctory tweet: “My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!” That’s it.
We all know McCain’s story: He survived five years of torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam before returning as a national hero. Donald Trump had managed to slip and slide out of military service. But that didn’t stop Trump from being dismissive about McCain in response to criticism from him during the presidential campaign: “He’s a war hero because he was captured,” said candidate Trump. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Contrast Trump’s style to presidential aspirant John McCain in 2008, who was running against (and ultimately lost to) Barack Obama. While making an appearance, McCain encountered a passionate Republican woman who derided Obama, saying, “He’s an Arab!” McCain — in a famous moment that demonstrated his statesmanship — responded: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
Remember that Donald Trump spent years after the election of Obama leading the racist “birther” movement against the president. But John McCain he definitely was not.
This is not to say that McCain was a saint. He was anything but. One of his biggest blunders can be summed up with two words: “Sarah Palin.” He perceived her as a way to juice up his campaign. Unfortunately he didn’t do his due diligence before selecting someone who was an uninformed blunderer who could have done the nation great harm if she were elected vice president.
All this you know. He was every bit a human being, as those of us who dealt with him were constantly reminded. He never forgot his humanity, but it’s essential we contrast that with the inhumanity that prevails over the political world now.
(Bob Franken is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who covered Washington for more than 20 years with CNN.)
© 2018 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.