We all do it – all the time. But we do it especially in politics.
We criticize – sometimes viciously attack – anyone who is from the “wrong” party, or simply what we think is the wrong side of an issue.
But then, when they die, we transform them into something so ethereal that it makes you wonder if the deceased isn’t hovering around somewhere, smirking at the irony.
I remember reading, with a friend in a newsroom, about the funeral of an elected official who had a somewhat checkered career. He had, justifiably, been given a number of derogatory labels, including “corrupt.”
But the story of his memorial service recounted tributes and homilies that painted him as a saint. “Bet he wishes he could have heard all this without having to die first,” my friend chuckled.
Of course I’m thinking of this during the week of mourning and beatification of the late Sen. John McCain.
At one level, I get it. I agree that “don’t speak ill of the dead” is wise counsel. I think that when somebody has died, it’s better to recall the good than to dredge up the bad.
And, as we have been seeing, hearing and reading over the past couple of weeks, there is a lot of genuine good about McCain.
He is a true war hero. While there are still claims that his imprisonment as a POW in North Vietnam is more “complicated” than the story we usually hear, the fundamentals remain true.
He suffered greatly in captivity. He was tortured, in ways that make waterboarding sound mild, but didn’t break. He refused special treatment, including an early release. He gave a lot, and was willing to give it all.
And while he did trade on that heroism when he ran for office, so did (and do) other veterans.
But, as McCain himself said a number of times, he is just one of thousands of heroes from Vietnam and previous wars, many of whom didn’t come back alive, and many others who led superb, productive, ethical, sacrificial lives but who will never lie in state anywhere.
And I suspect he would agree that military service, while it demonstrates sacrificial patriotism, doesn’t confer automatic good judgment onto every decision one makes through the rest of a lifetime. It doesn’t guarantee flawless character.
Neither does “serving” in elective office, which is not a sacrifice, given that it includes an enormous amount of power, very good pay and even better benefits.
I like very much what McCain said he hoped would be said about him after he was gone – that he served his country, imperfectly at times, but honorably and with love.
Which is why I wish that those who attacked him so regularly when he was competing with them in the arena would let up a bit on all the effusion.
In the current environment, it rings both hollow and opportunistic, especially since McCain was so critical of President Trump. Democrats are now pretending that he’s about the best ever, since if a Republican hero like McCain couldn’t stand Trump, then why would any other American?
But that’s not what they were saying in 2008 when McCain was running for president. The message from then-Sen. Barack Obama, whom McCain graciously asked to speak at his funeral, was that, “Of course, John McCain is an American hero, but ….”
As if, let’s get that out of the way because it’s not really relevant. Which was followed by the regular accusation that McCain wanted “a hundred-year war” in the Middle East.
This about a man who not only suffered as a POW himself but had a son serving in Iraq at the time. Obama, of course, never served in the military.
Yet, for some reason, there was no equivalent version of Khizr Khan, whose son had been killed in Iraq and who got massive media coverage attacking Trump in the 2016 campaign with the declaration, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
The Obama campaign got much more negative than that – personally negative. It wasn’t just that McCain was wrong on the issues, but that the senator, 71 at the time, was “erratic … unsteady (and) angry.” You know, too unstable to be president.
Not to mention Georgia congressman John Lewis, who invoked the specter of George Wallace in declaring that McCain was viciously “sowing the seeds of hatred and division.”
McCain was George Wallace reincarnated? Really?
I don’t buy the standard argument that such rhetoric doesn’t really mean anything because it was said “in the heat of the campaign.”
Not when McCain, as we have all seen numerous times, cut off a supporter who claimed Obama was an Arab and not a citizen to praise him as a citizen and good family man, “with whom I have some fundamental disagreements.”
I don’t recall former Vice President Joe Biden, who gave an emotional tribute to McCain this past week, telling Lewis to back off at the time.
McCain admitted he was imperfect, and he was – sometimes in ways both puzzling and disappointing. Last fall, before the vote called by Republicans to repeal Obamacare, McCain had told reporters to “watch the show.”
He approached the rostrum, held his hand up for several seconds and then dramatically gave it a thumb’s down – preserving the law.
As one critic noted, “the ‘show’ was healthcare for 22 million people.”
All of which is why it would be much better if his opponents didn’t spout the excessive platitudes they are now. If they really felt that way all along, they would have said so even in the heat of competition.
Better to leave it the way McCain himself suggested. He served, imperfectly, but with love and honor. That’s as good an epitaph as any.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org