It is hard to maintain one’s cynical detachment while watching an event like the memorial service for Senator John McCain.
Like almost everyone who watched, I was moved by most of the speeches – including those by Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Meghan McCain, and even Joe Lieberman (although not Henry Kissinger’s self-referential spiel), as well as the music (especially Renee Fleming’s rendition of “Danny Boy”).
In planning the service before he died, McCain understood the significance of the imagery of both Bush and Obama delivering eulogies. It required us to think about public service and patriotism. But the bipartisan event was not only a celebration of McCain’s life and legacy. It was also a rebuke to Donald Trump.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen people applaud during what was essentially a state funeral. But there was the assembled gathering of America’s political elite — present and recent past, Republican and Democrat – applauding after Meghan McCain said: “The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold. She is resourceful and confident and secure. She meets her responsibilities. She speaks quietly because she is strong. America does not boast because she has no need. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”
It was a remarkable moment – a rebuke to Trump by McCain’s daughter before both an international TV audience and a crowd of McCain’s friends, family, and colleagues. Their applause was like a wave at a baseball game. It started with a handful of people, but quickly expanded to a much wider group, eventually enveloping the entire audience in the National Cathedral.
The other speakers, including Bush, Obama, and Lieberman, were less overt than Meghan McCain, but they, too, used their eulogies to criticize Trump, whose involuntarily absence was deliberate and conspicuous.
McCain was hardly bipartisan during his political career. He was a conservative Republican who supported the Republican Party-line vote 87 percent of the time. But he was occasionally willing to buck his party on some key issues — including campaign finance reform, the use of torture against political prisoners, immigration reform, the regulation of tobacco, and, mostly famously, his decisive thumbs-down vote in 2017 against Trump’s top priority, the repeal of Obamacare.
Not a single speaker mentioned Trump’s name, but they all found ways to put the differences between the two men in dramatic relief. Unlike Trump, McCain was widely admired and respected, even among those who disagreed with him politically. Unlike Trump, who used his family ties and a phony physical excuse (“bone spurs”) to avoid military service during Vietnam, McCain demonstrated bravery and courage in combat. Unlike Trump, whose character is dominated by racism, selfishness, and an instinct for humiliation, McCain is remembered for his basic decency. Unlike Trump, whose entire life was spent seeking wealth, McCain devoted his life to public service and patriotism.
But when the camera panned on Mitch McConnell, I couldn’t help reminding myself that starting on Tuesday, things go back to normal. McConnell will still do Trump’s bidding on getting federal judges and Kavanagh approved, obstruct investigations into Trump, avoid commenting after Trump threatens to fire Sessions in order to fire Mueller and squash the investigation, and roll over on Trump’s statements and executive orders dealing with trade, immigration, and other issues.
I would like to believe – but strongly doubt – that this televised moment of national unity will persuade even one Republican in the House or Senate to do anything differently.
But perhaps the new Washington Post poll released on Friday — showing that 60% of registered voters disapprove of Trump and that an unprecedented 53 percent STRONGLY disapprove, while only 24 percent STRONGLY approve – will give some Republican politicians pause. Perhaps they will have second thoughts about kowtowing to the racist, neofascist megalomaniac who sits in the Oval Office (when he isn’t on the golf course).
Of course what matters most is what those poll numbers look like in their respective states and districts. But clearly the size of Trump’s following – not the hard core cultists, but other Republicans – as well as those independents and Democrats who voted for him with reservations – is shrinking.
McCain specifically prohibited Trump from attending the service. He knew that the president would be seething in anger, invisible to the global audience, forced to watch the event on TV, wallowing in self-pity.
No doubt Trump’s handlers had to work hard to restrain him from going on a Twitter rant during the ceremony. My friends and I were taking bets on when Trump would release his first Twitter rant and what it would say.
Trump is clearly panicking because he knows the walls are closing in, that many of his former close allies have turned on him and are cooperating with the Mueller investigation, that a blue wave is likely in November that will usher in a Democratic majority in the House (and perhaps the Senate) which will embark on tough hearings and perhaps impeachment proceedings, humiliating him even more.
I imagine that this is what Trump was thinking as he watched John McCain’s memorial service on Fox News from his Virginia golf club.