Recent events have shone a spotlight on the contrast between decency and indecency, kindness and cruelty, real courage and empty bravado, in public and private life.
This weekend the big news was the death of Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, a flawed man by his own admission but a giant by any measure, especially in comparison to the vanishingly small man who today misleads this nation.
But that minuscule human being, Donald Trump, could not overcome his aversion to McCain long enough to deliver what everyone expects from the nation’s leader: a sincere, respectful tribute to a man that the majority of Americans consider a national hero.
The Ego-in-Chief also could not stand that, on the wake of his death, McCain—instead of himself—dominated news coverage. For a whole weekend!
He also obviously fumed that coverage of McCain’s life and career was overwhelmingly laudatory in contrast to the negative media coverage Trump constantly generates through his own outrageous words, acts, and policies. More than anything, it must have been really hard for Trump to see that McCain was respected by pundits, politicians, and the public for being a man of honesty, principle, courage, the capacity to admit mistakes and to engage a former adversary to advance peace and reconciliation, the very qualities the president lacks.
I am a progressive, a Democrat and I was happy when the draft ended and spared me from Vietnam, prison, or exile. McCain was a conservative, a Republican and a military man who volunteered for Vietnam. But these differences pale for me when I look at the many facets of McCain, his evolution throughout the arc of his life and, especially, his character.
McCain’s differences with Trump should have been irrelevant when it came for the President to do his duty as Commander-in-Chief and leader of the nation and give the Senator his due. Lowering the flag to half-mast. Speaking about McCain’s heroism in war and long service in the Senate.
The fact that Trump had to be dragged kicking and screaming to perform even these small but highly symbolic acts of respect speaks volumes about Trump’s own character. Or lack thereof, unless you consider the kind of petulance and vindictiveness the President displayed in disrespecting McCain’s positive traits of character. But then no one ever said Trump had class.
It is not hard even for a political or ideological adversary to have respected John McCain. McCain was a man in full, a mensch. The Vietnamese, who he bombed and who kept him in captivity for five years in the harsh conditions of the “Hanoi Hotel,” respected him. They respected him for refusing special treatment and early release they offered him because his father and grandfather were both four-star admirals. They respected him, especially, because McCain—along with fellow Vietnam veteran, Democratic Senator John Kerry—had the guts to lead in the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, in spite of the fierce opposition of the most embittered Vietnam veterans who called him a traitor.
By pure chance, I was a personal witness in a Washington, D.C. hotel to the scorn this sector of veterans had for McCain when I ran into a gathering of the group “Rolling Thunder,” motorcycle-riding veterans to the right of the right. The point is that McCain knew that his reconciliatory actions toward Vietnam would cost him votes among a part of his natural constituency, but he carried on regardless because he knew it was the right thing to do.
Trump’s shameful farewell to John McCain was a new low even for this mean and soulless man. But then Trump’s contempt for John McCain goes way back. Years before the 2016 campaign, Trump questioned whether McCain was a hero. Two years ago during the campaign, Trump doubled down. In a televised interview, Trump argued McCain was not a hero because he was captured. “I like people who weren’t captured,” he said.
That statement did not detract one bit from the esteem McCain had earned, from friend and foe, during his life and career. But it spoke volumes about Donald Trump. For one, his willful ignorance and disregard for the facts which are that, having been shot down, having ejected from his plane, and suffering severe injuries which led to a permanent disability, an incapacitated and defenseless McCain could not avoid being captured when his parachute landed amid a group of undoubtedly angry Vietnamese.
What really galls is that this comes from a man who allegedly reveres the military but employed the slimmest of pretexts to avoid service in Vietnam and spent the war years carousing, wheeling and dealing, and playing golf.
If Trump is capable of guilt, this may explain what the past few days have shown: Trump’s almost pathological hatred of McCain, a rage that ran so deep and could sink so low, in word and deed, as to outlive death itself.
My fondest memory of McCain is of his last political act: The day that, mortally wounded, he strode onto the floor of the Senate and turned his thumb down to deliver the coup de grace to the vile effort by Trump and the Republicans to kill affordable health care in America.