John McCain funeral and the significance of political catharsis

C. Uday Bhaskar

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Rarely has a runner-up for the US Presidency been accorded the kind of final farewell given to the late Senator John McCain on Saturday (September 1) at the Washington National Cathedral.

It was an impressive and somber turnout of the US political establishment and the movers and shakers of the Beltway. The inclusion of two former presidents to lead the eulogy was as significant as the exclusion of the current US President Donald Trump – a calibrated decision taken by the resolute John McCain during the last stages of his unsuccessful but courageous grapple with cancer. His instructions to the family were unambiguous – “I do not want Donald at my funeral.”

There were many distinctive and unusual elements at the funeral service and the passing away of the Republican Senator from Arizona (August 25) and the steady build-up to the memorial service was described as a “phenomenon” by a discerning US military veteran.

The most unusual feature was applause – at a memorial service – and this was elicited during the first eulogy, movingly delivered by Meghan McCain, the Senator’s daughter who recalled her father’s conviction when she asserted: “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great.”

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The sub-text and the pointed reference to the Trump slogan of wanting to “make America great” was the underlying theme of the memorial service, which almost canonized McCain, while decrying the current White House incumbent and the deplorable narrative about Trump.

The Trump-McCain differences and personal diatribe over the last two years had plumbed depths never ever seen or heard in Washington and the memorial service could be seen as a definitive cusp in the collective consciousness of a weary America, still cringing from the uncouth and vulgar public utterances of a President – who for the record was playing golf on that day.

The McCain farewell became a rare phenomenon in the expression of American grief in public, over the demise, not only of a widely respected politician but that intangible loss of dignity and civility in public life

C. Uday Bhaskar

Obama’s eulogy

The tone for the service was set by former president Barack Obama whose oratorical skills are legendary and he captured the gravitas of the event and the political sub-text in his inimitable manner. Obama had defeated McCain in the 2008 US Presidential election and earlier the Arizona Senator lost the Republican nomination to George Bush in mid-2000.

Recalling McCain’s many admirable qualities of head and heart going back to his days as a prisoner-of-war during the Vietnam war and the Senator’s commitment to bipartisanship (an almost lost virtue in Trump-led US) Obama noted to smiles: “What better way to get a last laugh than to make George (Bush) and I say nice things about him to a national audience?”

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And in an allusion that would not have been missed by the Trump camp, Obama added: “So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.”

Former President George Bush, a less gifted orator than his successor (Obama) was no less respectful and incisive in his recall of the Arizona senator whom he had defeated in an ugly nomination battle among Republican candidates in early 2000.

He noted that McCain “respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators. He was honorable, always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings.” Bush added: “Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power.”

Sharpening tweets

The emphasis on “dignity” and the reference to abhorring the “abuse of power” would have resonated negatively in a distant golf club, where a lonely and petulant President would perhaps have been gnashing his teeth and sharpening certain tweets for use at a future date.

For a large cross-section in the US that is cringing at this loss of dignity in the exalted office of the US President, the McCain memorial could well be seen as a defining socio-political event in a national consciousness that has been demeaned and diminished over the last two years.

Specific to John McCain, the Trump charge that: “He’s not a war hero...he’s called a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured” burnished the veneration accorded to the departed senator, even while adding to the loathing directed at Mr. Trump.

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The McCain farewell became a rare phenomenon in the expression of American grief in public, over the demise, not only of a widely respected national politician but that intangible loss of dignity and civility in public life, associated with the Trump presidency.

To recall the observation of my US veteran friend, will the memorial at the National Cathedral remain a “brief moment of brotherhood among those swimming in the Trump swamp”? Or is it possible that this is the beginning of a national catharsis that will reclaim certain lost political spaces and ethical benchmarks in US politics?

The outcome of the November 6 elections for the US Congress will provide an indicator of the transience or substantive influence that John McCain’s departure will have on the world’s oldest democracy.
Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.

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