Now that the clouds of extravagant encomia have mingled with the millions of cubic feet of fulsome effusions already in the miasmic late summer air of Washington, D.C., I’d like to tell the story of my only encounter with Senator John McCain. I am apt to bore captive audiences with this tale at the slightest provocation anyway, but my excuse this time is that it makes a larger point, involving President Donald Trump, no less.
In the early 1990s, I was new on a job that involved my having some influence over providing support for organizations involved in generating ideas about public policy. At the time conservatives were already reeling and directionless under the impact of kindlier, gentler Bushism and the putative End of History, so with Bill Clinton’s smarmy “Third Way” shape-shifting looming, they needed all the help they could get. There was only so much money to go around and I was very conscious of opportunity costs. Even as a bit player in the show I conscientiously, if occasionally somewhat clumsily, tried to be a good steward.
A Surprise Call
It happened that an organization with Republican ties, which seemed pretty ineffective, had requested support for what looked like a weak project in which ill-suited people proposed to apply themselves ineffectively to achieving dubious objectives. Sure that the money could be better spent, I duly expressed skepticism to my bosses. One day I got a phone call from a flunky announcing portentously that Senator McCain needed to speak with me. When the Senator got on the phone he informed me that he was Grand Panjandrum or something to that effect, of the applicant organization and wanted to know why I was standing in the way of such an important undertaking.
I don’t remember all that I said, but recall letting him know that one respected and knowledgeable peer reviewer had concluded his comments by advising that my employers should not “touch this project with a ten-foot pole.” The Senator became incensed and threatened to go around me to my bosses, darkly hinting at grave career consequences for me, and for the Republic generally if the project did not go forward. He then demanded to know what I was going to do, and I responded “Senator I know what you can do – you can @%^# yourself, if you think you’re going to muscle me on this,” and he thereupon hung up in an appropriate snit.
In my defense I should add that I felt somewhat abashed at the tenor of the exchange, having grown up in a time and place where disrespect of one’s elders was met with swift and merciless condemnation. Moreover, since it seemed as if every man in town my father’s age had served as an infantryman, medic, Sherman tank or B-17 or B-25 crewman or mechanic, I needed no schooling in the respect due to veterans. But in the Senator’s pique and offended self-regard I did not sense any of the familiar quiet confidence and ease in their own skin of the veterans I had known, merely thwarted willfulness.
The Gift of Compromise
What would I have had the Senator do instead? Well, he might have told me that I was as wrong as I was rude, perhaps continuing, “My friend, I have important aisle-crossing to do and have no time for you now. We’re all on the same side here. Let me put my flunky back on the phone and you two can work out the problems with this project and let’s see if we can get it back on track.” But none of that noble gift for compromise or respect for the point of view of others celebrated this weekend ad nauseum was ever brought to bear on the problem.
What does this have to do with Donald Trump? Well, it appears that the Senator, as it were, hung up the phone again – this time on the president of the United States. What is worse, a lot of what we heard this weekend seemed actually to celebrate McCain’s slamming down that phone as manifestations of dignity and statesmanship worthy of George Washington himself.
However he may have connived to prevent Donald Trump’s election, once Trump became President, Senator McCain had two choices. He could have acted the selfless patriot eulogized this past week, swallowing his pride and working as best he could with the new president to avoid some of the errors and pitfalls the senator and his Beltway pals claimed to fear. Or, as he in fact ended up doing, he could sniff disapprovingly and just walk away from the man whom the American people had chosen as their president after twice rejecting the senator from Arizona. That choice, too, joins others more admirable in comprising the legacy of John McCain.