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In polarized times, praise for McCain becomes grounds for partisan sniping

Why We Wrote This

Remembering and celebrating a prominent senator with a storied career would not long ago have been entirely uncontroversial. But in today’s hyperpartisan environment, even eulogies have been weaponized.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
The US Capitol is seen from the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington. A proposal to rename the Russell building after Arizona Sen. John McCain was put forward by Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer after the veteran Republican senator died Aug. 25, 2018.

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When Arizona Sen. John McCain died on Saturday, his friend and fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine tweeted out some words of respect and praise for a “great American.” She was amazed by the responses she got – and not in a good way. “I made the mistake of reading some of the comments,” she told reporters earlier this week. “They were just horrible.” “Traitor,” “warmonger,” and “imperialist” are some of the sharp criticisms of the late senator flying around social media, from partisans on both sides. On the conservative news site Breitbart, comments about the senator and his parting letter to Americans are bitingly negative. Senator Collins even wondered if some of the negativity was generated by foreign adversaries or bots. To many, it’s just one more sign of the tribalization of American politics – that even a “lion” of the Senate can’t be eulogized without noisy criticism and controversy. “You have to have blind loyalty to your party as opposed to your country, and that’s just incredibly sad,” says Sen. Doug Jones (D) of Alabama.

When Arizona Sen. John McCain died on Saturday, his friend and fellow Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, tweeted out some words of respect and praise for a “great American,” a terrific senator, friend, and mentor. “May God be with this hero who has earned his rest.”

She was “amazed” by some of the responses she got – and not in a good way.

“I made the mistake of reading some of the comments,” she told reporters earlier this week. “They were just horrible.”

“Traitor,” “warmonger,” and “imperialist” are some of the sharp criticisms of the late senator flying around social media, from partisans on both sides. On the conservative news site Breitbart, comments about the senator and his parting letter to Americans are bitingly negative. In response to the Monitor’s appreciation of Senator McCain, one reader emailed: “He was a disgrace to this country and a traitor. He should be buried in an unmarked grave.”

Senator Collins even speculated that some of the negativity may have been generated by foreign adversaries or bots: “Maybe it’s a Russian troll in St. Petersburg and not a real person in the United States who would say such a hateful thing.”

Certainly if the Russians – or other agitators – wanted to seize on an event to gin up division in America, they’ve had plenty to amplify this week. In a marked departure from past tradition, the president had to be pressured into keeping the White House flag at half-staff and issuing a statement of respect after a veteran senator’s death. And that senator will be celebrated at a memorial service this weekend by two former presidents and other luminaries – but not the current president, who was not invited.

To many, it’s just one more sign of the tribalization of American politics – that even a “lion” of the Senate can’t be eulogized without noisy criticism and controversy.

 “Our country has become so tribal now, that you have to have blind loyalty to your party as opposed to your country, and that’s just incredibly sad,” says Sen. Doug Jones (D) of Alabama, talking about the anti-McCain vitriol punctuating the internet.

He sees the half-staff flag issue, as well as speculation about veiled digs at President Trump in McCain’s final statement, somewhat differently. That’s a “personal dispute on both ends – and that’s also unfortunate, because the bigger message of John McCain’s service gets lost.”

That bigger message was repeated on the Senate floor this week as a succession of senators lauded McCain for putting country above self and party – as a prisoner of war tortured during the Vietnam War; as a presidential nominee magnanimous in defeat; as a global advocate for American exceptionalism, military strength, and human rights; as someone willing to buck his own party and work across the aisle on tough problems like immigration, which remains unresolved despite the bipartisan bill McCain helped push through the Senate in 2013.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
The American flag flies at half-staff above the White House in honor of Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Aug. 26, 2018, in Washington. The White House raised the flag just two days after Senator McCain's death, but hours later, after widespread criticism, President Trump ordered the flag to be lowered again.

“He taught me that immigration, as hard as it is to solve, somebody’s got to do it,” said an emotional Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, on the Senate floor. He was standing next to his best friend’s wooden desk, which had been draped in black, a vase of white roses on the desk top. “He said to me with Ted Kennedy, ‘You’re going to learn, Lindsey, that the other side has got to get something, too.’ ”

Tearful, Senator Graham said, “I do not cry for a perfect man. I cry for a man who had honor and was willing to admit his imperfections.”

Former Senate historian Don Ritchie describes McCain as an “institutionalist” who understood that the only way to get legislation done is through compromise – that’s the way the Founders set up America’s government.

Mr. Ritchie adds, though, that McCain has always been controversial. He remembered a time when he got a phone call from a reporter in Arizona, McCain’s home state, asking about an organized effort to recall the senator. He answered that that’s not a possibility under the Constitution.

But McCain’s bipartisan approach to governing became more of a mismatch in today’s polarized America. Nowhere is this more clear than in Arizona, where he lay in state at the Capitol in Phoenix on Wednesday. Among Republicans there, McCain enjoyed only a 20 percent approval rating. Tuesday’s GOP Senate primary was fought among three candidates who largely battled to prove which one was closest to Mr. Trump, with Rep. Martha McSally – a moderate who lurched right – emerging the winner.

“It’s Donald Trump’s party” now, retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona told reporters on Tuesday, as voting was underway. In the long term, however, he believes McCain’s more bipartisan approach will win out. “It has to,” he explains. “You can’t just continue to drill down on the base. You can only go so far, and anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”

Like McCain, Senator Flake has been a strong critic of Trump. He has co-sponsored, along with Democratic minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York, a resolution to rename the Russell Senate Office Building after McCain, but that has already met resistance among Republican senators. Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky says he will appoint a small bipartisan “gang” to find a way to honor their colleague.

Constantin Querard, a conservative GOP consultant in Arizona, attributes McCain’s unpopularity among Republicans to the difference between McCain the candidate and McCain the senator. As a candidate facing a primary challenge in 2010, he argued for completion of that “danged fence” on the border, and in his last campaign he promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

But McCain the senator was an “amnesty guy,” as Mr. Querard puts it, advocating a path to citizenship in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill and going against Trump by voting against the Obamacare repeal last summer. Both positions are viewed as betrayals by Trump supporters.

“I wish the discourse was more polite,” says Querard, who consulted for one of McCain’s primary opponents. “There’s always a certain part of the population that’s going to behave badly, and it’s not restricted to the right. I’ve seen from liberals, ‘Why are you lionizing a guy who was a war monger?’ ” In his recent memoir, McCain admits that the Iraq War was a “mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my fair share of the blame for it.”

Historian Ritchie says this week’s eulogies are an opportunity to get out the larger message that McCain himself pushed – the need for unity. After a memorial in Phoenix on Thursday, McCain will lie in state in the US Capitol on Friday, be eulogized by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama at the National Cathedral on Saturday, and be buried at the US Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Md.

“This funeral will get a lot of national attention,” says Ritchie. “Every local news program will have senators talking to their home states, eulogizing McCain. If anybody’s listening and if anybody cares, the message is going out.”

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