McCain’s Eulogizers Remind Us Democratic Norms Are Living Ghosts

McCain’s Eulogizers Remind Us Democratic Norms Are Living Ghosts

Some form of national grieving was to be expected with the passing of 81 year-old Arizona Senator John McCain. As a Vietnam Veteran and POW, McCain inspired millions of Americans with his courage, patriotism and resilience. It was the piece of his biography that could never be disrespected (unless of course, you are Donald Trump).

After McCain left the U.S. Navy in 1981, he went on to a different kind of service. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, the scion of a storied military family became Arizona’s junior Senator in 1986. In recent years, McCain has been rightfully pilloried as a Republican Party man. Though he did not cast votes this calendar year, owing to his declining health, and is most freshly remembered for the famous July 28, 2017 “thumbs down,” given to the GOP’s “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, he was a dependable war monger and deficit scold – unless of course the budget busting was necessitated by military spending.

He voted in favor of President Trump’s agenda (or whatever it seemed to be on a particular day) 83 percent of the time – not exactly Utah’s kowtowing Orrin Hatch (96.1 percent) or Florida’s feckless Marco Rubio (96 percent). But are we expected to view Maine’s wishy-washy Susan Collins, who votes with Trump a mere 78.9 percent of all occasions, as a maverick? Nevertheless, the images of McCain riding around the country aboard the “Straight Talk Express,” throughout the 2000 GOP presidential primaries, remain indelible. On paper, John McCain III is a somewhat undifferentiated careerist, campaign finance efforts and friendships with the liberal Joes (Biden, and to a lesser extent Lieberman) aside. And yet, there’s no denying that he was a unique figure on the national stage.

Nowhere is this more evident than in McCain’s engagement with the media. Decidedly, the longtime legislative presence did not view the press as the “enemy” of the state as our fascist sitting POTUS is wont to do. For example, he appeared on NBC’s Sunday morning stalwart Meet the Press 73 times over the course of his tenure. NBC News writer Ben Kamisar noted on August 26:

“A constant presence in the halls of Congress, McCain was remembered by journalists as approachable and thoughtful.

‘The guy wasn’t a snob,’ Meet the Press host Chuck Todd said Sunday, who added that to many political reporters, McCain was the ‘first person to acknowledge them on Capitol Hill, to take them seriously as a reporter.’”

So yes, John McCain will be missed dearly. He was unpredictable. He was a man who loved his country and had enough character to shut down racist white voters pliant to Republican dog whistling. I was watching live in October 2008 as McCain appeared at a Town Hall event in Lakeville, Minnesota. I don’t remember much that was said, but I will never forget these words in defense of then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama, who has just been disparaged as an untrustworthy “Arab:”

“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”

From the vantage point of September 2018, that kind of character seems lamentably noble and quaint.

And I suppose that sense underpinned the double consciousness experienced as I watched coverage of McCain’s State funeral this long weekend. The country and its leaders were not just coming together to mourn the loss of an American icon. As we listened to the passionate and powerful words of those who eulogized the deceased -Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama, and hell, even Dubya – it was hard to escape the feeling that something more than the Arizona Senator had endured a slow and painful death.

Juxtapose the unifying, heartfelt and genuinely stirring tributes offered by Biden, Obama and Bush with the cynical bullshit offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence in the Capitol rotunda on Friday. As Charles P. Pierce of Esquire put it:

“…an unholy trio of Trumpist quislings, had to choke down their own cowardice and say how much they loved him and his irascibility. [McCain] deliberately created a mirror in which, if they still have an ounce of self-awareness, they could see the rot that has set in on their souls…

[McCain] wanted a pageant of everything this administration* has trashed and put up for sale, and that’s what he got Saturday—a morality play shot through with Shakespearian portent and foreshadowing, a pageant of democracy’s vengeance.”

McCain was a savvy player until the end, orchestrating a rebuke of this off the rails political moment in partnership with tributes to his life from Democratic men of solid character and oratory gifts. Losing a mind and a heart like McCain’s is a national tragedy. But some of this weekend’s speakers also felt like ghosts from an irretrievable era of sanity and order. This fleeting look at our better selves compounds the grief.

Becky Sarwate

Becky Sarwate

Becky is an award-winning journalist, Op-Ed columnist and blogger. On March 29, 2018 her first book, Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team, will be published by Eckhartz Press. She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob. Check out her collected work at, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.