A parting lesson in American civility from Sen. John McCain lies in the roster of leaders he personally selected to pay tribute at his memorial service Saturday at the National Cathedral.
When the 43rd and 44th US presidents stand on the high altar of the soaring cathedral on Saturday, after the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” anthem is sung, they will not only be celebrating the life of John Sidney McCain III. It will be McCain, too, having a not-so-subtle last word, aimed at another president he made clear he did not want to attend: Donald J. Trump.
While neither of the two former presidents were especially close to McCain in life, he and Bush were fellow Republicans, forged together for better or worse, through policy and party loyalty. After a deeply personal and vitriolic primary fight in 2000, McCain went on to endorse Bush and occasionally campaigned with him four years later.
I had a daily ringside seat to their feud, covering the campaign for The New York Times, chronicling their fights over the Iraq war and, later, the economy. On those subjects, and many more, McCain viewed Obama as naïve and unprepared for the presidency. To be clear, those critiques lingered long after Obama won, particularly on matters of national security.
It turns out, after talking to several friends of both men this week, their relationship isn’t intimate at all, but rather one rooted in mutual respect and a shared sense of alarm at today’s caustic political climate. Their telephone call on that April day was first arranged by advisers, not McCain simply dialing up Obama as he would do with his legion of friends, a sign they were hardly tight.
Obama has not been among the long parade of visitors who came to see McCain on his Arizona ranch as he fought brain cancer. George and Laura Bush dropped by not long ago, as did former Vice President Joe Biden, a close and longtime friend of McCain’s in the Senate, who will deliver a eulogy at a memorial service on Thursday in Arizona.
But McCain’s decision to ask Obama and Bush to eulogize him is part of a carefully choreographed — and, yes, even strategic — message for America and the world in the wake of his death. It’s also perhaps, one last opportunity for McCain to try and tamp down a fervor that first awoke in the Republican Party during his 2008 race and has swelled ever since.
“I think it is John McCain imparting a lesson in civility by asking the two men who defeated him to speak, as an example to America that differences in political views and contests shouldn’t be so important that we lose our common bonds and the civility that is, or used to be, a hallmark of American democracy,” Duprey said.
“Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here,” McCain wrote in the statement released after his death. “Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”
It was Obama, in particular, who got under McCain’s skin long before they faced off in the general election of the 2008 campaign. Their first skirmish happened two years earlier in the halls of the Senate, where McCain blasted Obama for “posturing” on one of his favorite issues: lobbying reform.
I was lucky enough to see that for myself when I first met McCain in the fall of 1999, as he was becoming the rising candidate in the Republican primary. At the time, I was a cub reporter for the Des Moines Register. Since McCain’s strategy was to skip the Iowa caucuses — a very wise decision — I went to find him in New Hampshire and was overwhelmed by his charm.
By the 2008 campaign, after I had interviewed McCain many times while covering Congress for the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, his charm turned cantankerous. McCain snapped at me one day as he returned to Washington to cast a vote, curtly suggesting reporters were treating Obama with kid gloves. He often refused to speak to journalists, but he always had a hard time keeping the punishment up for long because he did like talking — and promoting — issues that mattered.