The John McCain funeral was beautiful, and grotesque.
Beautiful in its setting and tone, for its speeches and its music. Grotesque for its excess, for its out-of-scale nature, and its patent vindictiveness.
I have loved and admired John McCain since my boyhood. I believe I own every book ever written by or about him. I have long held him to be a great American hero, and I wanted more than anything for him to be elected president of the United States.
But the disproportionality of his funeral and the national mourning associated with it are disquieting, in that they are neither deserved nor sincere. Also troubling was the political undertone of the death and its media coverage, and that the funeral presented as a monument to friendship transcending politics specifically disinvited individuals because of their politics.
There was also the realization that every aspect of the mourning for John McCain was scripted by John McCain. And given that the observances he planned for himself were larger and longer than those typically afforded presidents of the United States,the whole thing began to look like a postmortem exercise in unseemly vanity.
John McCain was a grown man and a naval officer when John Kennedy – a well-beloved president – was assassinated. John McCain witnessed John Kennedy’s funeral, and decided to one-up it. It wasn’t senatorial, it was regal. You half expected Queen Elizabeth to be on the bier.
There was no reason in protocol or past practice for a week of mourning with two lyings in state, or for a ceremony at the National Cathedral with two past presidents asked to speak. We have not had such funerals for heroes of the military nor for veterans of the Senate – or for those who have been both. When Bob Dole passes away, though his career is at least as storied as John McCain’s, he will barely be noticed.
Just 30 individuals have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda. John McCain is not one of the 30 most important individuals in the history of the Republic, nor is he likely one of the 30 most consequential Americans in government in his own generation.
But you wouldn’t have known that by watching the coverage of his death and funeral.
It was as if commentators and reporters were trying to outdo one another in somber tones and praising phrases. Also vying for the honor of most affected by the death were any number of politicians – specifically Democrat politicians.
Which is interesting because about a decade ago the media and the Democrats were certain in their assessment that John McCain was an old, white racist. When he was running for president, there was nothing of this non-partisan love, it was all excoriating invective against a man who represented, they told us, warmonger white guys and their imperialistic view of American prominence in the world.
When he was running for president, his patriotism was xenophobia and racism. Now that he’s dead, his patriotism is recast in gentler tones. Apparently, nothing burnished his resume quite like two years of hating Trump, and the pinnacle of his long-but-average legislative career was a single thumbs down.
And the song of friendship over partisanship is sung.
In honor of a man who famously held grudges and whose anger was explosive and profane. A man who made sure that the woman he reached out to help bolster his presidential campaign was publicly snubbed by his funeral, and that a sitting president was humiliated by a publicly announced disinvitation. It’s hard to buy this notion of collegiality when you use your own funeral to get in a series of parting cheap shots.
Even his daughter’s remarks, poignant and personal, were angry and sometimes shouted. The longest applause of the day came for her political slam of the absent president.
The present presidents did well. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama gave wonderful, presidential addresses – and maybe made some of us wistful for such demeanor and addresses – but in President Obama’s remarks you got the impression that he realized how over the top the event was.
The likelihood is that neither president – each an historic figure – will choose or have quite the ceremony and pomp afforded John McCain.
The funeral will be remembered by who was there, and perhaps by who wasn’t there. The audience was almost completely white – stunningly so for a mass political event in modern American – and there was no discernable representation of Arizona, either as a state or as a people who are richly Native American and Latino.
And it was preposterous to claim, as some commentators did, that John McCain was emblematic of the Vietnam generation, that he was the face and representative of a conflict and the men who fought it. The men who went to Vietnam were disproportionately poor and disproportionately brown, and the largest number of them fought on the ground and on the rivers, and supported the aircraft above. McCain, as a serviceman, was an elite. A true and noble warrior who went through hell, but he got to the war via a very different path, and he left the war via a very different path.
This is the irony.
I mourn John McCain. He has been, is and always will be a personal hero of mine.
It’s just that I didn’t recognize him in this. At least not the better part of him.
Maybe we needed the pageantry. Maybe the show was worth it.
But I couldn’t help but think that this man who was used for propaganda purposes as a naval aviator, was being used for propaganda purposes again as a dead senator.