The world got smaller when President Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. Kennedy wasn’t an impressive president, although he did keep the Cuban Missile Crisis from turning into a global thermonuclear war that ended all life in earth. There’s that. There’s not much else, but there had been that sense of youthful idealism, a sense that everything was possible – there was something new in the air. And then that was gone. Camelot was gone – that “one brief shining moment that was Camelot” – followed by one stupid conspiracy theory about the assassination after another – and by Lyndon Johnson. He was a pragmatic president. Kennedy was poetry. Johnson was prose. Johnson was crude and vulgar. Johnson also got things done, something Kennedy had not managed – the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start and all the rest – but Johnson wasn’t going to be the first president to lose a war, damn it. He turned our minor involvement in Vietnam, managed carefully and kept small by Eisenhower and then Kennedy, into a major war of national honor. That major war of national honor was unwinnable. Johnson decided he wouldn’t run for reelection. Let someone else figure it out. He couldn’t. Youthful idealism had died with Kennedy. He had none. The world had gotten smaller.
The world also got smaller when Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis that same year. There were riots in all the major cities. All of Johnson’s civil rights achievements were going up in smoke. America was getting smaller again, not larger. The world also got smaller when Bobby Kennedy was shot dead in Los Angeles a few months later. That killed off the last of any sense of youthful idealism, that sense that everything was possible, that might be left over from Camelot. The nation had few options. Lyndon Johnson had walked away from it all. Hubert Humphrey was a cheerful and totally insignificant man. Richard Nixon was a mean man, a man with a vicious streak, an angry petty little man who wanted to get even with everyone. The nation chose him. The world got even smaller.
This may have happened again. John McCain died. He was just a senator. His own party never trusted him. Democrats never knew what to make of him – he was with them on this and that, and then he was against them on everything else. He called himself a maverick. He was a pain. And he may have been a great man, and the world will be smaller without him.
The Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus captures some of this:
Why do we feel a sense of loss?
It’s not that McCain’s politics were universally popular; far from it. Democrats enjoyed his bouts of rebelliousness, but he was never really on their side; he was always a conservative and a hawk. Many Republicans distrusted him; by the end of his life, his party’s pro-Trump base considered him an apostate.
Nor is it the record of bipartisan legislation he leaves; that record is, in fact, rather thin. His most important achievement, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, has been eviscerated by the Supreme Court. Most of his other projects, like immigration reform, ended in failure.
McManus says that doesn’t matter:
McCain is an object of reverence for his personal courage, which was considerable when he exerted it, and for his old-fashioned civility in political battle. His concession speech to Barack Obama at the end of the nasty 2008 presidential campaign – “Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and his country… He will be my president” – was a model of grace amid disappointment.
But plenty of politicians, even in the age of President Trump, still manage to behave civilly toward their opponents. McCain was more complicated and more interesting.
What distinguished the Arizonan most was his adherence, worn on his sleeve, to a rigorous code of honor inherited from his father and grandfather – both decorated Navy admirals – combined with his recurring habit of falling short of his own standards and reproaching himself for his failings in public.
That’s what made him large:
Nearly all politicians cut corners on their way to the top. Few of them apologize when they do. (The current president of the United States, who loathed McCain, never apologizes for anything.) None, at least none in recent memory, ever apologized as fully and relentlessly as McCain.
All honest politicians hate the squalid little tradeoffs that politics demands – the favors, the compromises, the truckling to campaign donors. But most of them express their distress in private. McCain felt compelled to express his in public.
McManus offers a clear example of that:
In his 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, McCain faced a difficult choice in South Carolina. Demands were rising to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol, and McCain’s first instinct was to agree: “It’s a symbol of racism and slavery,” he said. But after aides told him his position, however admirable, would lose him the state’s primary, he backed off, saying he “understood both sides.”
Months later, after losing, McCain returned to the state to confess his error. “I chose to compromise my principles,” he said. “I broke my promise to always tell the truth.”
In a later memoir, he was even tougher on himself: “I had not just been dishonest. I had been a coward, and I had severed my own interest from my country’s interest. That was what made the lie unforgivable.”
That was McCain’s most oddly attractive characteristic: He hated hypocrisy – especially if he was the one practicing it.
And that’s what made him large:
In his life and in his words, McCain preached that every American should try to meet the highest standards of honor and valor – but he recognized that no one will always succeed, including himself. The test of character, he argued, was whether you owned up to your errors and spurred yourself to do better.
No wonder he found himself in bitter opposition to Trump, whose standards of honor and valor have proven undetectable.
McManus offers a quick review of that:
Soon after Trump’s inauguration, McCain became the de facto leader of the GOP opposition in the Senate, more willing to condemn the president’s offenses against decency and good government than most of his colleagues.
He warned the president against cozying up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin (“a thug”), criticized Trump’s order banning U.S. entry to people from seven mostly Muslim countries (“harmful”), and denounced his proposal to tax imports from Mexico (“insane”).
A year ago, McCain cast one of the decisive dissenting votes against his party’s attempt to repeal Obama’s healthcare law – not because he wanted to keep the law (he didn’t), but because he considered the bill Trump was pushing hopelessly inadequate. The president never forgave him.
And only a few weeks ago, after Trump praised Putin at a summit in Helsinki, Finland, McCain unloaded again.
“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” he said.
That was McCain at his best.
Who will say such things now? The world just got smaller again, and the Washington Posts’ Greg Jaffe recounts how big McCain could be:
It was both the most memorable moment from John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and a glimpse into the future of the Republican Party and America’s angry and divisive modern-day politics.
Played and replayed constantly since the senator’s death on Saturday at age 81, the moment seems to presage the rise of the “birther movement,” the era of “alternative facts” and the presidency of Donald Trump less than a decade later.
This was, in fact, an early version of every day now:
At a high school about 30 miles south of Minneapolis, a blond woman in a red shirt addresses McCain, who is in the final weeks of what will be his second failed run for the White House.
“I gotta ask you a question,” she says. “I do not believe in, I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not a… he’s an Arab.”
“No, ma’am,” McCain replies, shaking his head and taking the microphone from her, “He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
McCain was fighting today’s battles back then:
In those final weeks, McCain would try to make his campaign more about the issues, upsetting a party base that accused him of not hitting harder at Barack Obama’s background or questioning his patriotism. As the campaign ended, it would become dominated by their anger, at times egged on by the pre-Trumpian populist whom McCain had chosen as his running mate, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The party’s next nominee, Mitt Romney, would run afoul of the same dynamic. But in 2016 Republicans would find in Trump a nominee who spoke to, indeed encouraged, the fears of the woman in red.
In short, McCain won a brief battle and lost the war:
Ever the foreign policy wonk, McCain wanted a “campaign about policy,” said Richard Fontaine, a senior adviser to the senator.
He knew by October 2008, when he appeared in Minnesota with Palin, that his campaign was becoming something else entirely.
“That was a pivotal moment,” recalled David Axelrod, senior strategist for the Obama campaign. “When Senator McCain chose Palin there was a bit of a Faustian bargain. She spoke to the emerging base of the Republican Party in a much rawer way and drew out some of the rawer forces that had been subsumed.”
Axelrod recalled sitting in a hotel room and watching McCain take the microphone from the woman at the rally.
“John McCain was saying this is not what I’m about. It’s not what I want the Republican Party or my country to be about,” Axelrod said. “He was not just grabbing the mic. He was grabbing control back of his campaign. It was a brave thing to do.”
McCain also saw that was necessary:
Barely a month had passed since McCain announced Palin as his running mate at a rally in Dayton, Ohio. “She’s not from these parts, and she’s not from Washington, but when you get to know her, you’re going to be as impressed as I am,” McCain said at the time. McCain had thought he was getting a like-minded reformer. Instead he got “a culture warrior,” adept in a new kind of Republican identity politics…
Just three days before McCain’s moment in Minnesota, his campaign released an ad attacking Obama for his ties to William Ayers, a founder of a radical anti-Vietnam War group that had ceased to exist when Obama was still in grade school.
“Barack Obama and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers… friends,” the ad began. “But Obama tries to hide it. Why?”
The advertisement, combined with the increasing likelihood of an Obama victory, had unleashed the torrent of Republican anger that Palin helped stoke. At a rally in Florida she had whipped up supporters by telling them that Obama liked to “pal around” with “urban terrorists,” prompting a person in the crowd to shout “Kill him!”
The day before the Minnesota rally, McCain and Palin appeared together in Waukesha, Wis. The senator seemed shocked by supporters who shouted “Terrorist!” and “Off with his head!” at the mere mention of Obama’s name in association with Ayers.
McCain did the right thing, and lost:
“He did the right thing and deserves credit,” said Dan Schnur, a communications adviser on McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. “But it was fairly clear in that moment that it wasn’t going to be enough. It was a principled, noble stand, but not enough.”
In the years that followed, Palin would become a Fox News and reality TV personality. Trump would first become a leading champion of the “birther” conspiracy, which played on suspicions about Obama to suggest incorrectly that he was not born in the United States. Eventually, Trump would slam Muslims, Latinos and immigrants as he made his way to the Oval Office.
Richard Nixon was a mean man, a man with a vicious streak, an angry petty little man who wanted to get even with everyone, and it seems we have another one of those now:
President Trump nixed issuing a statement that praised the heroism and life of Sen. John McCain, telling senior aides he preferred to issue a tweet before posting one Saturday night that did not include any kind words for the late Arizona Republican.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and other White House aides advocated for an official statement that gave the decorated Vietnam War POW plaudits for his military and Senate service and called him a “hero,” according to current and former White House aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. The original statement was drafted before McCain died Saturday, and Sanders and others edited a final version this weekend that was ready for the president, the aides said.
But Trump told aides he wanted to post a brief tweet instead, and the statement praising McCain’s life was not released.
“My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!” Trump posted Saturday evening shortly after McCain’s death was announced.
That was it, and the world got smaller:
“It’s atrocious,” Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump’s legal team and a longtime Republican strategist, said of Trump’s reaction to McCain’s death. “At a time like this, you would expect more of an American president when you’re talking about the passing of a true American hero.”
Oh well. Others took up the slack:
By Sunday afternoon, the vice president, secretary of state, homeland security secretary, defense secretary, national security adviser, White House press secretary, counselor to the president, education secretary, interior secretary and others had posted statements lauding the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush issued glowing eulogies as well.
Other world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron, released similar statements.
“John McCain was a true American hero. He devoted his entire life to his country. His voice will be missed. Our respectful thoughts go to his beloved ones,” Macron posted on Twitter.
And then there was our small president:
As tributes poured in, the president who said McCain was “not a war hero” spent much of Sunday at his golf course in Virginia and did not utter a word publicly. In the afternoon, he returned to the White House, where the flags were lowered to half-staff in honor of McCain.
Trump’s Twitter account was silent Sunday other than reprising screeds against the investigation into Russian election interference and boasting about a buoyant economy. “Fantastic numbers on consumer spending released on Friday!” Trump posted en route to the Virginia course Sunday morning. “Stock Market hits all time high!” Later Sunday, he accused the news media of giving Obama credit for his accomplishments, posting an excerpt of a weeks-old piece from the Washington Times.
It doesn’t matter:
McCain requested that Bush and Obama deliver eulogies at his funeral, while not inviting Trump. White House aides said it is unclear whether Trump will go to Capitol Hill, where McCain is to lie in state on Friday.
Don’t expect Trump to do that:
Mark Hertling, a former senior military commander who lauded McCain on Twitter for visiting Mosul during heavy fighting in Iraq, said he was not surprised by Trump’s reaction to McCain’s death. Nineteen months into his presidency, Trump has yet to visit any war zones where American troops are fighting.
“It was very shallow,” Hertling said of Trump’s response.
McCain allies said they did not expect an outpouring of praise from Trump after their contentious past.
“It certainly doesn’t bother me or the people I know close to John,” Weaver said. “I don’t think it bothers John one bit. If we heard something today or tomorrow from Trump, we know it’d mean less than a degree from Trump University.”
Arizona GOP Senate candidate Kelli Ward suggested Saturday that the Friday statement issued by Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) family about ending medical treatment for brain cancer was intended to hurt her campaign.
McCain died Saturday hours after she made the suggestion on Facebook, The Arizona Republic reported.
“I think they wanted to have a particular narrative that they hope is negative to me,” Ward wrote.
Ward commenced her campaign bus tour the same day, the newspaper noted.
That’s as small as it gets, but John McCain was oddly large. Slate’s William Saletan counts the ways:
Ten months ago, facing terminal cancer, John McCain delivered what was, in effect, his farewell address. While accepting the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal, McCain diagnosed a sickness sweeping the West: a “spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” Everyone understood that McCain was talking about Donald Trump. But he was also talking about something larger. McCain was telling us what real patriotism is.
Patriotism starts with humility. You can’t be a narcissist like Trump. You have to understand that you’re part of something bigger. In his remarks, McCain poked fun at himself and his vices. He thanked the United States and its military for helping him “escape the consequences of a self-centered youth” and learn to serve “something more important than myself.”
Patriotism requires good will. You can’t love your country if you don’t love your neighbors. Part of that is learning to accept their patriotism even when you disagree. When McCain ran for president in 2008, he refused to question Barack Obama’s loyalty, and he rejected attempts by other Republicans to do so. In his speech last fall, McCain recalled that he and Vice President Joe Biden had “often argued, sometimes passionately. But we believed in each other’s patriotism and the sincerity of each other’s convictions.”
You have to support institutions. You can’t go around attacking the Justice Department or reducing it to a personal tool. You have to work with other citizens to build national and local organizations that address people’s needs. Looking back on his career in Congress, McCain said of himself and Biden: “We believed in the institution we were privileged to serve in. We believed in our mutual responsibility to help make the place work and to cooperate in finding solutions to our country’s problems.”
You must be willing to sacrifice for the common good. You can’t just talk about the flag and the national anthem, as Trump does. McCain suffered as a prisoner of war, but he didn’t talk about that in his speech. He talked about the greater sacrifices of others, recalling how the Pacific Ocean in World War II, in the words of President George H. W. Bush, “wrapped its arms around the finest sons any nation could ever have, and it carried them to a better world.”
You have to recognize your fallibility. In trying to serve your country, sometimes you make mistakes. McCain’s critics fault him for advocating the Iraq War and choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. McCain didn’t address those complaints in his speech, but he acknowledged that he sometimes got things wrong. “There were probably times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help,” he said, adding: “I haven’t always served it well.”
You have to recognize that your country makes mistakes, too. McCain often supported military interventions overseas. Some of them failed or backfired. In his speech, he didn’t name the failures, but he did speak of America’s sins at home. He counted the nation’s blessings despite “all our flaws, all our mistakes.” He noted that America today is “freer” and “more just” than it was in 1941.
In short, this man thinks large:
Trump thinks it’s unpatriotic to speak of America’s sins. But McCain understood that confronting our sins is deeply American, because principles define our country. “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil,” said McCain. We define ourselves not by walls but by welcoming people of many languages and faiths. In McCain’s words, we’re “the land of the immigrant’s dream.”
Trump, never having served his country, thinks of America as a corporation. His foreign policy focuses on trade, seeking profits while ignoring human rights. McCain saw that as a betrayal of our vocation. “We are the custodians of our ideals at home, and their champion abroad,” said McCain. That means pursuing “peace and stability,” but also confronting “tyranny and injustice.”
That mission, in turn, sometimes requires that we sacrifice for strangers. Trump looks at NATO and sees ingrates. He looks at the Middle East and sees oil we could take. McCain looked at these places and saw people in need. The United States “has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another better world,” he said. “I’ve seen Americans make sacrifices for people who were strangers to them but for our common humanity.”
So the large man confronts the small man:
Reducing love of America to tribalism is, in McCain’s words, “as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
That’s an epitaph worthy of McCain’s life. It honors the history of the United States by embracing the radical idea this nation always was. If we betray that idea – if we abandon liberty, openness, or human rights in the name of “America First” – we’ll lose America.
And we lost John McCain. The world just got smaller again. This started in the sixties with three consecutive assassinations. We just lost another good man, and we may have finally lost America.