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IN DEATH Sen. John McCain was honored by colleagues whom he disagreed with, even fought with and who considered him a disloyal maverick during his long tenure as a politician.
Former Vice-President Joe Biden summed up the attitude of the usually partisan personalities who crossed John McCain’s life before brain cancer took it at age 81.
Speaking at McCain’s internment in his home state of Arizona, Biden, opened up by declaring, “I am a Democrat…and I loved John McCain.”
Special guests at the final rites for McCain were former President Barack Obama who trounced the senator, as Republican party standard-bearer, in the 2008 presidential elections; former President George W. Bush, who defeated McCain in the 2000 presidential primary and whose campaign even resorted to such dirty tricks as spreading the baseless rumor that McCain had fathered a black child; and former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.
Absent was President Donald Trump. He was not invited to McCain’s final rites.
Trump’s absence was obvious at the various ceremonies honoring McCain. That included the one where he lay in state at the Capitol rotunda, a distinction reserved for the most outstanding and exemplary personages in the United States, such as Abraham Lincoln.
McCain was only the 31st person to be honored with an official internment at the Capitol rotunda. Interestingly, this honor was decided on by the leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives. The same leaders who were sorely disappointed with McCain when he cast the nay vote that doomed President Donald Trump’s and the GOP’s vow to repeal the controversial Democrat-passed Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare).
In truth, if Trump had his way, the Capitol rotunda honors would have been denied McCain, just as Trump balked at flying the US flag at half-mast during the entire period of McCain’s internment. It was only because of the uproar caused by Trump’s petty antagonism against a political critic (including a protest by members of the American Legion), that Trump relented and issued an executive order allowing due honors to be accorded to the late senator.
The final days of McCain above-ground must have virtually buried Trump in shame, as the entire country ignored the president of the United States while paying tribute to someone he considered an enemy.
But political enmity was set aside during McCain’s internment. For one shining moment, America’s political leaders cast aside partisanship and extolled the maverick senator who valued loyalty to country over and above loyalty to his political party.
With one voice, they conceded that McCain was a genuine hero and patriot. But what set him off in comparison to Trump was that McCain was also a person of grace and nobility, rather than pettiness, a trait that Trump has, unfortunately, shrouded himself with.
During the blistering contest against Obama, one McCain supporter at a political rally had very unkind words to say about the African-American candidate that bordered on racism. McCain stopped the supporter and contradicted her, pointing out that Obama was a decent and respectable person and not the kind being portrayed.
In contrast, throughout the campaign to choose the Republican standard-bearer, the presidential contest itself against Hillary Clinton, and throughout Trump’s brief tenure as president, he has been the epitome of boorishness, pettiness, racism, self-delusion and falsehood, playing to the basest attitudes of his supporters.
On the other hand, McCain never played to his base, often disappointing his party mates and refusing to toe the party line.
As a congressman and six-term senator, McCain earned the moniker of “maverick” because he often bucked the Republican position on issues, and often reached over to the opposition Democrats to work on critical legislative initiatives. He worked with the late Senator Edward Kennedy on comprehensive immigration reform, voted against tax cuts for the rich (which Trump forced through in the name of tax reform), campaigned against dependency on fossil fuel, warned against global warming, and advocated campaign finance reform.
While he was a known supporter and admirer of President Ronald Reagan, McCain, as a rookie congressman, spoke vigorously against Reagan’s plan to send US marines to Lebanon. The slaughter of hundreds of US and allied soldiers in a terrorist attack on a Marine camp in Beirut proved McCain right, but it was a pyrrhic validation of his principled stand.
For sure, McCain was not infallible. He was known to make poor judgments, such as choosing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign. Palin was a drag on the campaign and confirmed people’s negative perceptions of her afterwards.
But McCain stood by his convictions, even if it wouldn’t have made sense to the less principled.
As a soldier and a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, he endured five and a half years of torture and solitary confinement — and yet when he was offered an opportunity to be released, he declined because of the unwritten rule among POWs of first-in-first-out, meaning that those who had been confined ahead of McCain deserved to be released ahead of him, too.
Trump disdained McCain. The feeling was obviously mutual. McCain refused to endorse Trump, the official Republican standard-bearer in 2016, sunk Trump’s pet campaign vow to repeal Obamacare, and characterized Trump’s summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin as “one of the most disgraceful performances of an American president.”
McCain was also the antithesis of Trump in other ways. McCain, whose father and paternal grandfather were both admirals, volunteered for active duty with the US Navy at 17. He flew fighter jets, was shot down over Vietnam and was a POW for five and a half years.
On the other hand, Trump avoided being drafted into the military and avoided being sent to Vietnam five times by claiming a bone spur in his feet at one point and claiming college education four other times.
A ridiculous comment by Trump about McCain was that the latter was not a hero because he was captured. According to Trump, heroes were not supposed to be taken prisoners. This prompted pundits to comment that Trump’s “heroism” was by sparing the US armed forces of his cowardice.
McCain’s passing may have been a sobering hiatus for professional politicians. And the soaring rhetoric that the speakers spoke during the internment ceremonies may have given Americans reason to hope that the divisiveness that has marked the Trump presidency can be healed.
But it’s too early to tell. Politicians have this magical talent for putting on a noble mask when occasion demands, and especially during funerals.
As a Tagalog pundit puts it, “Bihisan mo raw ang matsing ay matsing pa rin.” (You may dress up a monkey but it is still a monkey).
The likes of Senator John McCain will be missed.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.