John McCain's death writes a new chapter in the decline of institutions and decency in the nation's politics.
Please understand that I mean decency, not civility. While a fine thing, civility is but a concession to courtesy.
Decency is not a matter of surface behavior, appearance or concession. Instead, it is depth of character. It's real respectability. It's a redeeming moral foundation. It's knowing the right thing to do and, when it counts, doing it even if it hurts.
And it vanishes when a huffy, self-consumed American president reacts to the death of a storied political rival exclusively with manifestations of personal ego and resentment, wholly without manifestations of compassion, respect or honor.
Yes, sure, Donald Trump eventually put out an acceptable statement extolling McCain and declaring that the flag over the White House should be lowered to half-staff. But he acted only under obvious duress and after a hideous spectacle of presidential infantility producing appropriate and fast-growing public disgust.
A president of that sort diminishes the institution of the presidency, just as this one had diminished the heroic ideal of military service--particularly that encompassing sacrifice and suffering--when he said in 2015 that he didn't consider McCain a hero because McCain got caught and he preferred warriors who didn't get captured.
One way not to get taken as a prisoner of war is to get deferments from any form of military service because you have a supposed boo-boo in your foot.
The sum of all that Trumpian behavior diminishes the general institution of our politics. The diminishment spreads via social media and people whose meanness grows in proportion to the breathtaking expanse of their ignorance. They dare to ridicule a dead hero only because he opposed the preposterous second-place and Russian-endorsed president they embrace perversely as their anti-hero.
Also caught up in the passing of McCain is the institution of the U.S. Senate, still sometimes called the greatest deliberative body in the world.
U.S. senators supposedly can be more thoughtful and prone to statesmanship because they're removed from the ever-present political pressures of two-year House membership.
McCain wasn't all that deliberative on policy, but he was old-school on Senate tradition. He would rear up in independence, even irascibility. He would vex his own party by embracing as respected friends Senate colleagues of the other party--Joe Biden and even, get this, Hillary Clinton.
McCain was of a different time. He was a presidential candidate who would say to a woman who called Barack Obama an "Arab" that Obama was not an Arab and that he was a fine family man she needn't fear.
In a way, that woman in the audience in 2008 would become the president after next. She was Trump, just warming up.
The Republican presidential candidate in eight short years would not correct that woman. He would be that woman, transgendered, transported from audience to stage, not scolded, but cheered.
John McCain was the last Republican standing in her, or his, way--whether calling her down, or giving the thumbs-down to repeal of compassionate health care, or issuing a statement to be read after his death reassuring Americans that they're stronger and better than the mess he was involuntarily departing.
McCain was wrong many times, but spectacularly right by instinct at least once.
As the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, his desire was to present the GOP convention with a center-right Democrat-turned-independent, his occasionally self-right-eous senatorial friend Joe Lieberman, as his running mate.
His aides waved their polls and emerged from their focus groups to tell him he couldn't possibly do that. They said he'd squander the fervor of the GOP base essential to any chance of victory against the hope-and-change message of Barack Obama. They strongly urged him to pick Sarah Palin, a wholly unprepared and uninformed Alaskan blowhard and the smarter prototype for Trump's soon-to-come know-nothingism.
The point is that such independent, aisle-crossing senatorial behavior may be buried with McCain, or out to pasture with Lieberman, or defeated by nearly 20 points with Mark Pryor in Arkansas.
The best analysis of Trump's aversion to McCain came the other evening from the erudite George Will, a rare conservative who makes no concession to Trump's indecency.
Will said Trump was, if nothing else, insecure, and that McCain represented through his life's accomplishments--and in his style--all the things that made Trump insecure.
Of Trump's wallowing in obvious petulance when he should have been leading the nation's tributes to McCain, Will explained that, with Trump, matters almost always will descend into the realm of the obscene.
I wish I'd said that. But I don't resent that Will said it, and I am happy to avail myself of, and rise in tribute to, his analytical skill and phrasing panache.
It's not all about me. Apparently, it's all about Donald Trump.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at email@example.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 08/30/2018
Print Headline: What it's all about