“If you have no character your destiny is tragedy.” These words offered by former federal prosecutor John Flannery as he described the likely outcome of Donald Trump’s presidency and life. This notion of self-inflicted fate has been around for centuries as when Oedipus the King was advised by Tiresias, “Creon is not your downfall, no, you are your own” (Sophocles, circa 430 B.C.). The remarkable thing about the noose that appears to be tightening around Trump’s neck is that his nemesis, Robert Mueller, has yet to speak one word. Trump’s addiction to peevish impulse, fearmongering, and deceit are tightening the rope with virtually no help from others. All one must do is look at the faces of Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Stephen Miller, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, et al—that are often either bursting with rage or spewing contempt—to know these folks are not only in deep trouble, they know they are in deep trouble. Contrast that with the seldom seen face of Mueller or, moreover, the face of John McCain even as he faced imminent death. When you are on the right side of honor, tranquility is easy.
McCain’s final words were full of gratitude, self-awareness, and grace. He spoke of the “privilege of serving,” of his “love for America,” and his “love of my family.” He easily acknowledged “I have made mistakes” and even in his life that included physical and psychological torture, and humiliating defeat, he claimed he was “the luckiest person on earth.” In the end, he knew he had “lived and died a proud American.” These are words of honor. These are words of a man at peace. He also had a message many thought was aimed at Trump.
We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.
Those same ‘many’ wonder if Trump was listening; if he got the message. But the question is not was Trump listening, the question is, are we?
McCain also deftly arranged his eulogies at his memorial service in the National Cathedral to be delivered by prior political foes, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He knew that the accolades of former adversaries would be more powerful than those of advocates. And, he wanted to show the world the spirit of his often stated credo: “we must serve a cause greater than ourselves.” Of McCain, Bush said,
John was above all, a man with a code. He lived by a set of public virtues that brought strength and purpose to his life and to his country. He was courageous, with a courage that frightened his captors and inspired his countrymen. He was honest, no matter whom it offended. Presidents were not spared. He was honorable, always that recognizing his opponents were still patriots and human beings. He loved freedom, with a 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.
Obama, more direct perhaps than Bush, but with a subtlety he mastered as a target of vitriol and racism himself, summoned us to engage anew.
So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty. Trafficking in bombastic manufactured outrage, it’s 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. That’s perhaps how we honor him best, by recognizing that there are some things bigger than party or ambition or money or fame or power, that the things that are worth risking everything for, principles that are eternal, truths that are abiding.
The proverbial elephant NOT in the cathedral was, of course, Donald Trump, whom the press pool reported left the White House in his white MAGA hat midway through Meghan McCain’s remarks, perhaps for a round of golf. Meghan, the most direct of all in assailing the antithesis of her father, Donald Trump, gave the most eloquent eulogy of the day closing with a line that will, no doubt, be broadcast over and over: “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”
I have no hope whatsoever that any of these messages will be considered by Trump. There is no space to comprehend virtue in a mind addled by avarice. Again, the question is not did he listen, but are we? The challenge is to restore our own sense of honor to deliver America to a better place than the dark mendacity that is Trump.
May we embrace the destiny of honor McCain so ably bestowed, and allow the destiny of tragedy to be Trump’s and Trump’s alone.