“He’s an Arab!” a woman said to Sen. John McCain at a nationally televised October 2008 presidential candidate forum. The senator’s opponent, Barack Obama, at whom her comment was directed, was on the same stage, just a few feet away.
“No, ma’am,” Sen. McCain responded before reaching out to remove the microphone from the woman’s hand. He then went on to explain how wrong her comment was.
Sen. McCain died last Saturday of a brain tumor, days after his family announced that he was discontinuing treatment. He was 81 years of age, a giant in America’s political landscape and a man who, like a relatively small number of iconic figures in our history, will be remembered for decades to come for the life he lived and his devotion to country and public service.
His biography is well known to that group of Americans who read and know some history of their country. He was shot down during a bombing run over Hanoi during the Vietnam War, suffered terrible injuries and was captured and held in prison for five and a half years.
During that time, confined to a bed, he was tortured by his captors — torture that produced lasting physical disabilities he carried with him for the rest of his life. You could see it every time he tried to raise his arm to make a point. It would not go very high.
He forged deep bonds with his fellow American prisoners — they would tap out messages to each other on the walls of their cells — and he famously turned down an early release by the North Vietnamese government because he saw it as deeply wrong to be spared while others were left behind. He wanted to remain with them until they could all be sent home.
Twice, Sen. McCain ran for the highest office in the land — a position for which, based on his remarkable biography, he was perfectly suited. And twice he lost, first to George W. Bush in a campaign remarkable for the ugly smears heaped on him by his opponent’s side, and again in 2008, when he lost to Mr. Obama.
Sen. McCain’s life has been hailed by historians and scores of public figures since his death. Tributes have come from leaders around the world, including a typical one from the president of France, who lauded him as a true American hero.
The Russian government is, at the time of this writing, an exception. Russian state media went out of its way Sunday to deny him any sort of honor, characterizing the senator as an “implacable opponent” of Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin.
Also failing to offer any words of praise through the weekend and into Monday morning was the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, for whom Sen. McCain had no regard at all. While flags at the White House flew at half-staff over the weekend, they were returned to full height Monday morning. Later that day, they were lowered again. It was reported that, after word came of Sen. McCain’s death, Mr. Trump did not want an announcement released that would have characterized him as a hero. Instead, he tweeted bland sympathies to the senator’s family.
It is clear that Mr. Trump did not see the senator as a hero. During the presidential campaign, in a comment that will resonate for years to come, Mr. Trump said Mr. McCain was no hero because he had been a prisoner of war. The president was also furious after Mr. McCain walked into the well of the Senate and gave a dramatic thumbs down on a vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature legislative achievement.
Now, the president has been left off the list of those invited to the senator’s upcoming funeral. This is an epic and historic snub. Former presidents Bush and Obama will deliver eulogies. But the McCain family — and a number of Republicans nationwide — see the current president as a man whose actions and behavior are beneath the dignity of the office he holds. Mr. Trump has found it easier to praise Mr. Putin than Sen. McCain.
It seems now that the comment the woman made to Sen. McCain at that 2008 forum — “He’s an Arab” — was a glimpse into what lay ahead in American politics, a precursor, for example, of candidate Trump’s promotion of the racist conspiracy theory that President Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery and he had been born in Africa.
At this time in our history, America needs leaders like Sen. McCain, who put country first.
Photo caption: Flags hung at half staff outside homes near Goose Creek in Southold Wednesday in remembrance of John McCain. (Krysten Massa photo)