Congressional Republicans made a show of honoring John McCain, even as they continue to reject his principles.
They sat in seats of honor, near the front of Washington National Cathedral. They bowed their heads when appropriate. They looked up pensively and listened.
By all appearances, they were honoring their departed colleague, Senator John Sidney McCain III, during a majestic ceremony on Saturday. And by doing so they were showing America that leaders of both parties reject the hateful, petty, law-defying politics of President Trump. They were showing America what a better nation could look like.
But it was all an act — a cynical, hypocritical act that McCain, who had a keen eye for hypocrisy, would have seen right through.
It was an act for Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. It was an act for Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House. It was an act, most jarringly, for Lindsey Graham, McCain’s dear friend and the senior senator from South Carolina. It was an act for Orrin Hatch, Rob Portman and nearly all of the other Republican members of Congress who attended the service.
It was an act because they have not kept faith with the principles that McCain held dear — and that he himself organized his memorial service to celebrate, as a clear rebuke to Trump and Trumpism. McConnell, Ryan, Graham and the others have instead done the very opposite of keeping faith. They have made possible Trump’s hateful, petty, law-defying politics.
Despite running a branch of government that the Constitution makes equal to the presidency, they have meekly assented to Trump. Entrusted with power, they have chosen complicity.
They have refused to defend America’s national security in the face of Russian attacks. They have refused to defend the rule of law against Trump’s attacks. They have refused to defend the F.B.I., the Justice Department and the First Amendment. They have refused to defend the basic civil rights that Trump seeks to deny to dark-skinned American citizens, including the right to vote and the right to hold a passport.
When George W. Bush said the following words in his eulogy for McCain, what did the congressional Republicans in attendance think that Bush possibly could have meant:
“He was honorable, always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings. He loved freedom, with the passion of a man who knew its absence. He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators. Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots.”
When Barack Obama’s eulogy was organized around a recitation of McCain’s principles, what contrast could Obama have possibly been drawing:
“John cared about the institutions of self-government — our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, rule of law and separation of powers. … He understood that if we get in the habit of bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our democracy will not work. … John understood, as J.F.K. understood, as Ronald Reagan understood, that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our bloodline; not on what we look like, what our last names are.”
And when Meghan McCain rose and did what her father advised for this occasion — she showed them how tough she was — surely the congressional Republicans knew exactly what she was referring to:
“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 to. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”
The cathedral then broke into applause, not exactly a common occurrence during a eulogy.
Over the last few years, McCain sometimes struggled with how to respond to Trump. McCain first refused to endorse Trump, then caved, unfortunately, before ultimately revoking the endorsement. Once Trump took office, McCain went further in trying to restrain him than nearly any other Republican — but not as far as he could have. So McCain understood the political tensions facing the congressional Republicans he leaves behind: Trump remains extremely popular with Republican voters, and he can also help conservatives achieve their policy goals.
In the end, however, McCain saw the situation clearly. Political expediency and short-term policy goals are not worth undermining basic American values. It’s not even close.
In his final book, McCain described Trump’s behavior as “disturbing” and “appalling.” In one of McCain’s final public statements, he called out Trump’s “naïveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats.” And in McCain’s final public act, he turned his memorial service into a piercing alarm about a president of the United States damaging and threatening his own country.
The congressional Republicans inside the Washington National Cathedral on Saturday would surely say they came to honor John McCain. But they were there for show. Faced with a choice, they have rejected McCain’s America for Trump’s.
David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt • Facebook