McCain: POW, Hero, Patriot, Legend ... Rorschach Test

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McCain: POW, Hero, Patriot, Legend ... Rorschach Test
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Some of you may still be debating the “laurel” vs. “yanny” recording that exploded online this week like another summer storm. It is an allegory for our troubled time, in which some of us simply cannot even hear what others hear, let alone understand the positions they take. Unfortunately, so is the ugly debate over whether Sen. John McCain, one of our greatest living heroes, deserves an apology from someone mocking the fight of his life.

It has come to this -- reverence for the gift McCain has given our country can be subjugated by partisan rage. That McCain has become a casualty of our vulgar tribalism is a dark stain on our country.

When most of us (according to polling) look at McCain, we can only see the son of an admiral, refusing early release from a North Vietnam prison and choosing further detention and torture at the hands of his captors, for the sake of solidarity with his brothers in arms. For years.

Yet many others view McCain as some Republican misfit who disappointed them. While some are willing to acknowledge his sacrifice, they choose to give his political choices more weight. They are not overcome by his valor, but overwhelmed by his votes across the aisle. Voting against so-called “skinny repeal” of Obamacare last summer, which many believe McCain did on behalf of his colleagues who felt forced to support it but wanted it to fail, was -- to GOP partisans and to President Trump -- apostasy.

No one is surprised Trump has not asked his aide to publicly apologize for her now famous aside that McCain’s opposition to the nomination of Gina Haspel for CIA director didn’t matter because “he’s dying anyway.” Trump has mocked McCain’s service and imprisonment before, blasted him for blocking repeal of the Affordable Care Act and has never publicly apologized for anything except the “Access Hollywood” recording, on which he bragged about sexual assault. But the staffer, Kelly Sadler, did apologize to McCain’s daughter Meghan and offer to make a public apology, which she has yet to do. To distract from the painful episode, which has been addressed not only by Meghan but her mother, Cindy, on Twitter, the White House continues decrying leaks.

On Tuesday night, pollster Peter Hart conducted a focus group in Wisconsin and found some Trump voters lined up against the war hero. According to the Washington Post, one Trump supporter called McCain “petty” while another referred to him as a “turncoat.” Hart concluded: “If anybody has a doubt about how solid the Trump core is, come listen to this group. They couldn’t even find a nice word to say about John McCain.”

Fortunately, on the same night, McCain’s son appeared in his stead at the International Republican Institute’s annual Freedom Dinner, where Defense Secretary James Mattis paid homage to the senator.

“Tonight, there is a man standing here right beside me, and you and I can see him in our mind’s eye,” said Mattis, who was there receiving a Freedom Award. “He’s a giant, in my mind, of American public life. He leads steadfastly, nothing can diminish him, he steadfastly represents the best of our country.”

Mattis added: “Everything I love about America is resident in this man, who denied cynicism and victimhood to be a role model for so many of us.”

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who also received a Freedom Award, said to McCain’s son: “You should know that your dad is in our hearts tonight. John McCain has shown multiple generations of Americans what it means to be a true patriot, and all of us are in his debt.”

While at least eight GOP senators are on the record calling for someone at the White House to issue some form of an apology, not one addressed the subject when Trump joined them at the Capitol for  lunch Tuesday. One of McCain’s best friends, Sen. Lindsey Graham, instead sent a tweet after the gathering that Trump himself would have written: “President @realdonaldtrump is a believer in peace through strength. President Trump today gave an excellent overview of our North Korea and Iran policy, and how he forcefully plans to deal with both threats.” Two days earlier, Graham called Sadler’s comment “disgusting” on “Face the Nation.” He didn’t stop there. “I just wish somebody from the White House would tell the country that was inappropriate -- that’s not who we are in the Trump administration. ... I think most Americans would like to see the Trump administration do better in situations like this. It doesn't hurt you at all to do the right thing and to be big.”

It’s hard to imagine that the fear of ruffling Trump’s feathers was so overpowering not one senator could rise and respectfully suggest that a statement expressing at least that the incident was unfortunate would be a fitting response to mocking a war hero battling cancer. They could have said that they desperately hope McCain doesn’t die during this back-and-forth, so perhaps some closure is in order.

When asked after the lunch, as he knew he would be, about whether the subject was raised, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wore his trademark expressionless expression and said no but: “The person who said that should apologize, and apologize publicly.”

McConnell was fresh off his visit with McCain over the weekend, and had to be hoping -- as were all his colleagues -- that McCain wasn’t following the disappointing developments. Certainly, they know, his family is.

McCain is facing the final chapter in his journey with trademark stoicism, humor and gratitude, speaking of how lucky he has been to live the life he has. He tells friends who visit that he loves them. Ever the brave veteran, he is unbroken. But for the McCain family -- who live by a hero’s code, understand the depth of his sacrifice, and now suffer as they face losing him --  this dark episode cuts deep into their aching hearts. And they know, most strikingly at this of all hours, that a nation that would make McCain a dividing line has broken so much of what he and many others worked so hard to help build.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 



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