During his lifetime John McCain challenged colleagues on both sides of the American political divide but his death has led the country to pause for thought.
One of the most interesting things surrounding the death of Senator John McCain was the fulminations of various pundits on the left and the right, insisting how awful he was and why all the fuss.
To some on the left, he was the gung-ho ‘hot dog’, the rookie go-for-it pilot sent to rain hell on the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War. It was he who introduced the world to the absurd proposition that Sarah Palin was qualified to be the first in line to the presidency. McCain made the Tea Party flesh by consenting to Palin being allowed anywhere near the Oval Office.
On the right he was quite simply a traitor, a sell-out. He was the ultimate ‘Rino’– Republican In Name Only. Both sides, of course, were right.
The Tea Party was made flesh in about 2006, through broadcaster Glenn Beck’s daily, afternoon blackboard and chalk dissertations on the origins of the nation, broadcast on Fox News. Palin, the first term governor of Alaska, embodied everything that the Tea Party was, including its loud and proud disregard of facts, and even reality itself. She went on the satirical show Saturday Night Live playing herself alongside Tina Fey, who sent her up every Saturday. And they existed on the same plane and at the same time. John McCain brought all of these worlds together and made them respectable and suitable for analysis on the Sunday talk shows. It was insane and somewhere he had to know this because she was not invited to the senator’s funeral.
McCain was also the man who killed Donald Trump’s marquee campaign pledge: to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s signature domestic piece of legislation: the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Trump ran on taking this programme out. On erasing Obama from history. Trump bragged that he could destroy that legacy.
But McCain killed Trump’s dream. He was the one who sunk the so-called ‘skinny repeal’, the small piece of legislation that could have surgically removed the pillars of the ACA, thereby collapsing it. That he allowed Obamacare to stay alive is something that Trump cannot forgive.
Knowing this, McCain made sure that he came on to the floor of the Senate during the vote, making the most dramatic gesture he could: like a Roman emperor at the moment before the ‘kill’ at the Coliseum he gave the thumbs down. There were audible gasps in the chamber.
He gave the thumbs down, too, on his own party, now known, in some quarters, as the Vichy GOP. He insisted that Congress return to what he called ‘regular order’. He wanted the Republicans, who, for now, hold the majority in both Houses of Congress, to get some bipartisan business done.
George W Bush’s campaign had thrown dirt against him in the south when they both competed for their party’s nomination in 2000. McCain in turn was churlish toward the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, in their debates during the presidential campaign of 2008. But he ended up being friends with Obama and he was friends, too, with George W Bush.
That he sometimes messed up, and messed up big, was something that many on neither the left nor the right can accept. And so – as too often these days – they have found common ground in relation to McCain. Because the Arizona senator believed in compromise. More often than not, he tried to find a way of working cooperatively. But if your political position is also a testament of a kind of faith, then compromise is a violation of that faith. My Way or The Highway is the badge too many people wear.
This is not to say that McCain was not partisan. He was. But he messed up largely in public. That way you could judge him for yourself.
And so America is using his death to judge itself. This is not an unusual thing. Abraham Lincoln was considered by many to be a tyrant towards the end of the American Civil War. After his assassination he became the conduit of national interrogation of much more than mourning. His casket was placed on a slow train that ran from Washington DC to his burial place in Springfield, Illinois, more than 750 miles away. Lincoln’s corpse being processed through the land, took away, for a moment, the darkness of war. The assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, all of these deaths became symbols of a moment in which the Republic questions what and who it was.
America is a nation now, through the death and funeral of John McCain, which is talking back to itself. It is sitting down and looking over the map of what it is meant to be, what the whole point of it is.
The self-harm known as Brexit is exposing all of us to little nationalisms and the fear and the hatred and the sense of blood and soil that some consider to be the United Kingdom. Brexit has become the cauldron of all of our fears, our distrust. It is exposing contradictions such as the Conservatives, the ‘party of business’, promoting a plan that is hurting business growth. Labour, the party of progressives, has become more protectionist and therefore smaller, as its membership grows.
Do we, too, need a funeral to make us ask the big questions, to throw down the gauntlet of national possibility, as America is now doing? And if we do, if a funeral is the answer, whose funeral would it be? Who would be big enough to cause us to pause and reflect and look at what the nation has become and where it is going?
Trump is right when he said that McCain’s obsequies are over the top. They have to be. Because the dilemma that the Republic finds itself in, and their entire world, is over the top. And so there will be the eulogies and the wall-to-wall coverage and the sad trumpets and the tears and the bagpipes and the military precision of it all.
But what McCain’s funeral is allowing to air, to breathe, is the stench that is the 45th president of the United States. A dead man may be the beginning of the end of Trump. While ‘Don the Con’ attempts to gaslight the nation and the world with his version of the truth on a daily basis, the American people are going back to something, through a dead military veteran, that helped create the ongoing experiment that is the USA. It is the idea that different people might be able to govern and live together. And make something new. Something bigger than themselves. This is why McCain’s funeral is a moment. An American moment.
This is one of the best ways to read it.