Like a beloved major leaguer playing his final season, accepting gifts and receiving toasts at his last appearances at opposing teams’ stadiums, John McCain finds himself in his death-bed bombarded by pre-obituary accolades from the press. The press, which McCain has long jokingly referred to as “my base,” has already issued so many sugary summations of his life and political career that by the time he dies the obituary writers will have nothing to chew on but a smattering of scraps.
In recent weeks McCain has been lauded in print for his decency, his courage and his congeniality. He’s an icon. No, he’s an American hero! No, make that the conscience of the Senate! Bret Stephens and Gail Collins of the New York Times have gathered around the cracker barrel to reminisce in a piece embarrassingly titled “Maybe We Don’t Deserve John McCain” about the glories of covering his “Straight Talk Express” campaign for president in 2000. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, not usually given to this sort of acclamation, dropped his wise-guy persona last week to gush about McCain being “the single greatest political leader of our time.” Back in the Times, columnist Frank Bruni staged a Viking funeral for the senator, writing, “Although I disagree with many of his political views, including his too-keen itch for foreign intervention, that doesn’t prevent me from admiring him enormously.” Not even Derek Jeter and David Ortiz were flurried with as much confetti when they departed.
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On and on the McCain reverence goes, and it doesn’t take a seasoned pundit to observe that while McCain is the subject of the adoration, he’s not the cause. The media’s love for McCain, while palpable and longitudinal, has always been relative. The competition for journalists to say something nicer about him has always been less about describing who the senator is than who he is not. Back in 2006, former aide Mike Murphy expressed this phenomenon concisely to the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz. Nice talk about McCain was the press corps’ way of “expressing a negative opinion about the Republican Party.”
In the current example, praising John McCain is an efficient way to damn Donald Trump. New York Times columnist Tim Egan led the way last week while sipping his own ration of McCain sorrow, pausing to laud the senator as a “rare man of honor at a time when the current president has no honor.” The inflation of the “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway” quip by a low-level White House munchkin into an international incident because the president and the quipster have failed to publicly apologize for the comment is another example of using McCain to dig at Trump. Sure, it was insensitive, but how many of us have not indulged in this sort of closed-door gallows humor? The blanket outrage directed at this indiscretion by the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN convinces you that if these outlets had ambassadors, they would have recalled them in protest by now.
McCain’s impending end had already made him a hot news topic, but by pushing his name deeper into the news, the White House inadvertently gave the press a new vantage from which to criticize Trump as not being the senator’s equal: McCain enlisted and served while Trump was a draft-dodger; McCain’s life has been about duty and Trump has been about grifting; and McCain and most of the living ex-presidents will be at McCain’s funeral, but Trump won’t.
This contrasting of the two men has become so automatic that McCain didn’t even bother to name himself as the exemplar of all that is good and right when he slammed Trump in his forthcoming book, and from which the New York Times quotes. Of Trump, McCain writes, “He seems uninterested in the moral character of world leaders and their regimes. … The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values. Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity.”
Nobody can read about McCain’s stay in the Hanoi Hilton and all he endured there without grimacing and hailing his fortitude. Of his periodic stands that have cut against the grain of his own party we can also salute. But as journalist I.F. Stone warned us in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was murdered, “Funerals are always occasions for pious lying.” The good and the bad contained in a life deserve equal appraisal as it comes to an end. “A deep vein of superstition and a sudden touch of kindness always leads people to give the departed credit for more virtues than he possessed.” That’s straight talk anybody can appreciate, right?
As with the previous press swoons for McCain, this one will eventually collapse as reporters and commentators on the left recall how conservative he really is. As Andrew Ferguson pointed out in 2006, the high regard the National Right to Life Committee, the American Conservative Union and the Christian Coalition had for McCain revealed his true colors, as did his 2008 hunt for Republican primary votes. For a preview of the corrective commentary we’ll be seeing a few weeks after he’s ushered to his final reward, see this 2009 piece by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who assessed him after he “turned on his former base, the news media,” and fell out of favor. “Even some of McCain’s former aides are disturbed by the 73-year-old’s hostile, vindictive, sarcastic persona,” Dowd wrote.
Left to choose between McCain and Trump, the media will forever tilt toward McCain. But keep that preference in perspective: When left to choose between McCain—presently lionized as the living embodiment of American heroism and a paragon of virtue—and a young upstart senator from Illinois who had been on the national scene for less than three years, it swooned hard and long for the newcomer. The press has a fickle heart.
I demand some grief from readers for taking the view that the “he’s dying quip” is not that big a deal. On this subject, I subscribe to the views of Terry Southern, who once wrote, “If a thing is actually funny, then it cannot be in poor taste.” Write something mean but funny to [email protected]. My email alerts are dead, my Twitter feed needs a kidney transplant, and my RSS feed stands waiting for its ultimate justice in the gallows.