John McCain Died, But America May Have Been Reborn
Can a new, improved America be born in the midst of its funeral?
Along with many Americans, on Saturday I watched the nationally televised funeral for John McCain. And also, I believe, I watched a funeral for the loss of American ideals, as well as a rallying cry for our nation. No, John McCain was not a perfect man, and many people including myself disagreed with him politically, but this was a funeral that made it feel as if John McCain was sort of America’s ‘everyman,’ someone we could respectfully agree to disagree with, but also someone whose love of country and personal sacrifice we’d never doubt, just as we’d never doubt his inherent respect for all people.
This, for my generation, became evident on the 2008 election campaign trail when McCain quickly shot down racist tropes against Obama that some of his audience members tried to perpetuate. Obama was his rival. In today’s political climate those racist tropes might’ve been considered valuable ammunition, but in 2008 America, John McCain quickly took the mic, shook his head no, and spoke clearly, defending his rival as “a decent person, a person you do not have to be scared of as a President of the United States.”
When another audience member began discussing how she couldn’t trust Obama because she’d been reading about him, and how he was an Arab, McCain again took the mic away and with integrity, he refuted the claim, and again described Obama as “a decent, family man, a citizen, and someone I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
We knew about John McCain with the fiery temper, the horrifically tortured POW, the war hero, the Senator who often dramatically defied policies if he felt they were genuinely bad for the country, but this glimpse on Saturday gave us an understanding of John McCain the individual, the son, the husband, the father. And I think many of us are realizing that his death sort of signals the end of an era, an era in which decency and decorum ruled politics and bypassed party lines, an era staunchly different from the current full-on, reality TV style Trumped-up Trumpism on display under the White House Big Tent.
We’ve regressed from the era I grew up in — an era of looking up to the President, even if you disagreed with him — and it was fairly easy to look up to him, because we always knew that person to be someone who could speak eloquently and with authority, someone who understood the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and American history, and it was always someone who defined typical American ideals and held common, shared values with American citizens.
I may not have agreed with Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, or George W. Bush on much of anything, but I can’t remember a time when they or their opponents ever resorted to openly using the Presidential podium to spew the type of rhetoric we hear today. Whether in the form of petty nicknames for colleagues, cheap shots at private citizens, willfully ignorant racist rhetoric, divisive propaganda, or denying one another’s patriotism when they simply had political disagreements, we just didn’t hear it. Overall, our Presidents tended to be good and decent people, with the exception of a couple — but those were most definitely the exception. What we’re seeing now with ‘Trumpism’ is the polar opposite of decency.
While the current President’s name was never uttered once throughout the service for John McCain’s life, a direct rebuke against him was certainly implied in the subtext of every speech given. There were no speakers perhaps as poignant as Meghan McCain, though, who gave an incredibly emotional yet controlled eulogy for her father; I don’t know how any daughter could get through such a painful task. She mentioned how he’d asked her to do this while he was still alive, and how she’d asked in return, “what do you want me to do with this eulogy?”
His response was simply, “show them how tough you are.”
On that account, she showed all of America exactly that.
From the beginning of her speech it was clear who and what she was speaking for:
“We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness. The real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who lived lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.”
“The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold. She is resourceful, and confident, and secure. She meets her responsibilities. She speaks quietly because she is strong. America does not boast because she has no need to. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”
Eloquently, she focused on the virtues of her father: courage, honor, purpose, respect, integrity, heroism, kindness, and unconditional love. But in doing so, she also reminded us that these same virtues are necessary to preserve and sustain a democratic republic such as the United States of America. Going forward, we cannot succeed without drawing a proverbial line in the sand. Right now, all of those virtues have not just relapsed, but are also being brazenly assaulted and attacked from the highest seat in American government.
The same themes were echoed within the eulogies given by our last two Presidents, one Republican, and one Democrat. When George W. Bush spoke, his condemnation and rejection of ‘Trumpism’ was easy enough for even Donald himself to get the message, if he’d been listening. He said of McCain:
“He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators. Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots.”
After that direct attack on Trump’s desire to lead a totaltarian society, he continued by laying out a “do better, America” message:
“At various points throughout his long career, John confronted policies and practices that he believed were unworthy of his country. To the face of those in authority, John McCain would insist, ‘we are better than this. America is better than this…’
Forever tempted to forget who we are, to grow weary of our cause, John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder: We are better than this. America is better than this.”
When Barack Obama arose to eulogize McCain’s life, he noted that others had spoken to the depths of McCain’s torment, and the depths of his courage in the cells of Hanoi, when day after day and year after year, “that youthful iron was tempered into steel.” He spoke of how in captivity, John McCain had learned in ways — that few of us ever will — the meaning of Hemingway’s words: “Today is the only day in all the days that will ever be, but what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”
Obama elaborated on the same themes that George W. Bush, and Meghan McCain had, while also weaving in a call to action. He said that each moment, each day, each choice, is a test:
“And John McCain passed that test again, and again, and again. And that’s why when John spoke of virtues like service and duty, it didn’t ring hollow. They weren’t just words to him. It was a truth that he had lived, and for which he was prepared to die. And it forced even the most cynical to consider what were we doing for our country? What might we risk everything for?”
Obama also made some pointed admonishments of the current President’s practices, like his suggestions of reversing civil rights, and his putting on of airs that intersect grandiose machismo with wealth and the illusion of power:
“But John understood that our security and our influence was won not just by our military might, not just by our wealth, not just by our ability to bend others to our will, but from our capacity to inspire others. With our adherence to a set of universal values like rule of law, and human rights, and an insistence of the God-given dignity of every human being.”
When Obama spoke of his and McCain’s off-the-record talks in the oval office, he reiterated the importance of finding common ground across party lines while also rebuking the Trumpian style stab ’em in the back methods of governing:
“We never doubted the other man’s sincerity, or the other man’s patriotism, or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team. We never doubted we were on the same team. For all of our differences we shared a fidelity to the ideals for which generations of Americans have marched, and fought, and sacrificed, and given their lives. We considered our political battles a privilege, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those ideals here at home and to do our best to advance them around the world. We saw this country as a place where anything is possible, and citizenship has an obligation to ensure it forever remains that way.”
Obama referred to Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’ oration, which speaks of those who strive valiantly and dare greatly, who sometimes win and sometimes come up short, but always relish a good fight, in contrast to “those cold, timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat…”
“Isn’t that the spirit we celebrate this week? That striving to be better, to do better, to be worthy of the great inheritance that our founders bestowed? So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast, and insult, and phony controversies, and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact, is born of fear.”
Obama spoke of how John McCain called on us to be bigger and better than that. And referring back to Hemingway’s quote “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be, but what will happen in all the other days that will ever come, can depend on what you do today,” he asked:
“What better way to honor John McCain’s life of service than — as best we can — follow his example? To prove that the willingness to get in the arena and fight for this country is not reserved for the few, it is open to all of us, and in fact it’s demanded of all of us as citizens of this great republic. That’s perhaps how we honor him best. By recognizing that there are some things bigger than party, or ambition, or money, or fame, or power, but there are some things that are worth risking everything for: principles that are eternal, truths, that are abiding.”
Undoubtedly, the rebukes against the current President and this culture of ‘Trumpism’ were intentional, purposeful, and they were designed by John McCain himself, who I believe was speaking through his daughter Meghan that day. There were no insignificant gestures throughout the week of tributes and memorials, and Saturday’s was no exception. From his chosen pallbearers to the invited guests and array of eulogists, McCain knew the message he was sending, and he also knew it was the bold, unafraid, sharp criticism that most of America has been waiting to hear from the voices of our leaders. And it was certainly intentional and noticed that the current leader, the sitting President, was neither invited nor welcome.
What McCain planned and executed was a total and complete rejection of Donald Trump and his exclusive brand of brutish, boorish ‘Trumpism.’ It was very tastefully done, and worthy enough to be broadcast live on national TV for everyone to witness. We watched and we saw former Presidents and Vice-Presidents, First Ladies, past and current Senate leadership, political scions — essentially, all of Washington, D.C. (and even some foreign dignitaries and dissidents) — all coming together to resoundingly reject Donald Trump.
And what we witnessed from two former, opposing party Presidents, who were once intense rivals, was a coming together as one nation, unified, to deliver nothing short of a very stern censure of this vile, cruel, low, and dark chapter in the history of modern America and our current public life. It’s unlikely we’ll witness a more public, more formal, ceremonial analysis of a sitting President in this lifetime.
John McCain was a man staring down death’s door — for a second time. After a life of service and a full understanding of 2018’s political climate, he had planned every detail of his funeral, knowing that the eyes of the nation — perhaps other nations as well — would be upon this occasion. Despite his aggressive brain tumor, he had the foresight to know America would be watching intently, just at the moment when we needed to feel moved, to bear witness to a revival of sorts.
He also knew that this occasion would totally eclipse anything that the current President could’ve done, or anything that could’ve possibly happened to the President on that particular day. (Of course, the President was noted to have left the White House halfway through Meghan McCain’s eulogy for her father, and was en route to play golf — for the 154th time since taking office, at a running cost of tens of millions of dollars to the American taxpayers — after a morning of tweeting about NAFTA, the DOJ, FBI, and Hillary Clinton — all attacks.)
So now the question is: what do we do going forward? I think we have to return to decency, we have to progress civil rights ever forward, and we have to think beyond our personal comfort zones and focus on what the best thing will be for generations to come.
The United States of America, this government of the people, by the people is far from perfect. America is an imperfect nation that has never quite managed to live up to its founding ideals. But the virtues that clearly marked John McCain’s life, such as courage, honor, purpose, respect, integrity, heroism, kindness, and unconditional love — those universally good virtues exist everywhere around us in America, right now, and they occur among ordinary, everyday citizens. Unfortunately, those virtues appear to be missing from the top, the place where we’re used to seeing them exalted.
Regardless, we are faced now with a choice: what type of country do we want to live in? What type of country do want to leave for future generations? The path that our country is currently on is the regression of democracy, the gradual freefall towards autocracy. Do we want to continue wallowing in division, discord, bigotry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc., or are we going to be able to actually rise above those things?
John McCain’s televised funeral was a timely reminder that our country is on the precipice of a huge decision. This funeral was as much about John McCain as it was about the future of America, and what we ultimately want to be as a country. The choice is ours, not former Presidents, not the children of heroic servicemen & women, not those who live their lives in the spotlight. The choice is ours — the everyday, hardworking American people — and if we care enough about the future of this country, and future generations, we must be willing to somehow put our bodies on the line, or at least, in the arena.
I have to have hope that America as a nation will recover from this season of gratuitious cruelty that’s trickling down from the President of the United States. We have to, and I believe we can move past this. And when we do, when we can finally put this shameful, sorry chapter of America to rest, we will need to awaken on a new season, one of catharsis, reckoning, and reconciliation in this country. John McCain’s life seems to have been a beacon shining the way for us to do just that.