Obama, Bush, and Hemingway: McCain’s gifts to a troubled nation

Former President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at a memorial service for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. McCain died Aug. 25, from brain cancer at age 81. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Former President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at a memorial service for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. McCain died Aug. 25, from brain cancer at age 81. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

We couldn’t presume to read the minds of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell as they sat in the National Cathedral on Saturday during a funeral service that was clearly crafted to rebuke Donald Trump and his craven enablers. Most likely, all the bipartisan paeans to John McCain, all the eloquent attempts to summon the better angels of our nature, troubled the congressional duo not one whit, their moral compasses having been stomped long ago by the isolated autocrat who spent the day tweeting about himself.

Nor can we dare hope that McCain’s meticulously organized farewell to Washington – most notably, his plea that America confront its crisis by saving its soul – will somehow inspire other Republicans to see the light. Lindsey Graham, the longtime McCain senatorial sidekick, heard the same sermons we did, but alas, it’s too late; he has already flipped to the dark side for reasons nobody can fathom.

Other Republican lawmakers in attendance surely heard the blistering words of Meghan McCain – whose father’s “greatness” was “the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice, those that live lives of comfort and privilege … The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great” – but they’ll return to Capitol Hill with their spines still in cold storage.

But John McCain designed his funeral for a much broader audience – those of us who still believe in traditional American values, including the rule of law and the importance of checks and balances; those of us who believe that truth is something real, not merely a “narrative” designed to bludgeon a designated enemy; those of us who still believe in the imperative of accountability, restored to Washington via the ballot box before it’s too late. And he called on his old foes, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to stress those enduring values, and perhaps prompt a sufficient share of voters to seize the future and steer us back to safety.

And so it was, on Saturday, that Donald Trump took a well-deserved beating from a dead man. One key surrogate was Bush, who has long been wary of wading into the current muck. But not this time. You didn’t need a code book to decipher the subtext of this passage:

McCain “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, could not abide bigots and swaggering … One friend from Naval Academy days recalls John reacted to seeing an upperclassman verbally abuse a steward. Against all tradition, he told the jerk to pick on someone his own size … The strength of a democracy is renewed by reaffirming the principles on which it was founded. And America somehow has always found leaders who were up to that task, particularly at the time of greatest need … If we are ever 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.”

Translation: We are better than we are right now only if we make it so.

Barack Obama followed Bush. It was totally in character that he spoke far longer than Bush, but given all the space he occupies inside Trump’s head, it was surely excusable. And what mattered most was how he leveraged McCain’s legacy – linked himself to it, across party lines – to deliver a message for the ages. Trump clearly tuned it out; indeed, on Monday afternoon he was back on Twitter trashing the rule of law. Oh well. He passed up the opportunity to hear what a real president sounds like, speaking to a nation at the crossroads:

“Our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, rule of law, separation of powers, even the arcane rules and procedures of the Senate … those institutions, those rules, those norms are what bind us together. They give shape and order to our common life, even when we disagree. Especially when we disagree. (McCain) understood that if we get in the habit of bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our democracy will not work. That’s why he was willing to buck his own party at times, occasionally work across the aisle … That’s why he championed a free and independent press as vital to our democratic debate…

“John understood, as JFK understood, as Ronald Reagan understood, that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our bloodline, not on what we look like, what our last names are, it’s not based on where our parents or grandparents came from, or how recently they arrived, but on adherence to a common creed: That all of us are created equal, endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights…

“John understood that our security and our influence were 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 …

“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phoney controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear.”

McCain’s final message, articulated by those who beat him for the presidency, was that we act as patriots and pull ourselves out of crisis. The midterm congressional election season has begun, the tallying is merely 64 days away, and it’s not hyperbole to state that the direction of this country hangs in the balance. As Obama said Saturday, quoting from one of McCain’s favorite books, authored by Ernest Hemingway, “Today is only one 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.”

It’s up to us, as it was in 2016, to chart our own future. This time around, what will we do?

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