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Can John McCain memorials be a healing moment?

Why We Wrote This

Ever combative, John McCain has been viewed through widely different lenses since his passing. But his memorials come at a time when the higher ideals he openly strove for are seen by many as a needed balm.  

Kevin Dietsch/Reuters
Vice President Mike Pence sits with Cindy McCain, wife of late Sen. John McCain, during ceremonies honoring Senator McCain inside the United States Capitol Rotunda in Washington Friday.

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John McCain was a passionate believer in bipartisanship – in his view, putting country over party. His death has been marked by both praise and censure, but it has also seemed to mark the end of an era. Yet this week of memorials doesn’t have to be a eulogy for bygone practices, political observers say. McCain would be the first to say that he didn’t always live up to his ideals. But he also knew how to apologize and learn from mistakes, say friends. And he knew how to face defeat and reconcile with his opponents. The “McCain code” was honor, courage, integrity, and duty, said friend and former Vice President Joe Biden. The growing tribalism in America means that a true moment of national unity around McCain’s death might not be possible. But “there’s a longing for a sense of coming together with purpose, and I think that’s what John McCain symbolizes,” says one Republican consultant who worked with him. “If nothing else, the celebration of his life allows us to take a moment to reflect on where we’re going, especially as we head into a competitive political season.”

In his final years, John McCain became an increasingly polarizing figure.

A passionate believer in bipartisanship – in his view, putting country over party – the storied Republican senator from Arizona found himself more and more at odds with the times and with the president of his own party. Even after Senator McCain’s death, his feud with President Trump persisted – as seen both in the senator’s posthumous farewell letter and Mr. Trump’s refusal at first to engage in the rituals of presidential respect for a major public figure.

Most telling, perhaps, were the bitterly negative comments about McCain on social media, amid the praise. To some, McCain’s willingness to cross the aisle made him a traitor to the conservative cause, including last summer, when his vote killed the repeal of Obamacare. To supporters of his bipartisan ways, if not always his policy views, McCain’s passing marks the end of an era.

But this week of memorials doesn’t have to be a eulogy for bygone practices, political observers say.

“There’s a longing for a sense of coming together with purpose, and I think that’s what John McCain symbolizes,” says Kirsten Fedewa, a Republican consultant who worked on presidential campaigns both for and against McCain. “If nothing else, the celebration of his life allows us to take a moment to reflect on where we’re going, especially as we head into a competitive political season.”

This pause in the nation’s midterm campaign frenzy also presents an opportunity to think about the larger principles that shaped McCain’s life, both in his military service – including 5-1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam – and his decades in the Senate.

At Thursday’s memorial service in Phoenix, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke of the “McCain code” of honor, courage, integrity, and duty that his longtime friend strived to live by.

“It wasn’t about politics with John,” Mr. Biden told the assembled, including about 25 United States senators of both parties. “He could disagree on substance, but the underlying values that animated everything John did, everything he was, come to a different conclusion. He’d part company with you if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself.”

'I have made mistakes'

McCain would be the first to say that he didn’t always live up to his ideals. “I have made mistakes,” he wrote in his farewell letter. He could also be caustic, and worked to keep his famous temper in check. But he also knew how to apologize, and learn from mistakes, say friends.

McCain also knew how to face defeat and reconcile with his opponents. The fact that McCain asked former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to deliver eulogies at Saturday’s memorial service at Washington National Cathedral is telling. Both men had thwarted his drive to become president – President Bush in the 2000 GOP primaries and President Obama in the 2008 general election.

“McCain was not close to either one,” says Lorne Craner, a former McCain foreign policy aide, whose father was held captive in Vietnam with the future senator. “He and Obama had some pretty rough spats when they were in the Senate together. That he would invite those two who had defeated him solidly says a lot.”

The fact that McCain requested in advance that Trump not attend any of the memorials also spoke to his deep antipathy for the president, who continued to disrespect McCain publicly even as he neared death.

This abiding schism between two larger-than-life figures, both fighters by nature, no doubt helps explain some of the negativity on social media by Trump supporters after McCain died. And on a larger scale, the growing tribalism in America means that a true moment of national unity around McCain’s death isn’t really possible, says Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

Still, “I think the memorial services will be healing for the millions of Americans who are not stuck in this tribalism,” Ms. Lukensmeyer adds. “The vast majority of us are not in this game, and not stuck in this way.”

Indeed, even as Trump initially declined to put out a statement honoring McCain after he died, and hesitated before ordering flags at half-staff through his interment Sunday, other top administration officials issued immediate tributes, including Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

On Friday, Mr. Pence represented the Trump administration during a ceremony honoring McCain, as he lay in state in the US Capitol rotunda. “The president asked me to be here, on behalf of a grateful nation, to pay a debt of honor and respect,” Pence said, before quoting from a Christian hymn “Faith of Our Fathers.”

McCain’s legacy now fully belongs to history. And how it will resonate long term with younger generations remains to be seen. For now, the extensive coverage of McCain since his death seems to have captured attention across the board.

“People are going to talk about him for a very long time,” says Tracy Webb, a 30-something nurse’s assistant in Phoenix. “It didn’t matter what side he was on. If he felt like something needed to be fought for, he went for it.”

Mr. Craner, the former McCain aide, was in the Midwest dropping his son off at college when the senator died. On Sunday morning, he says, “all the kids were talking about McCain.” 

“They admired him because he was a rebel,” Craner says. “They’re young, they appreciate rebels and that he had principles. Many were young Democrats, and they appreciated that he would cross the aisle.”

Sperling Fellow David Sloan contributed to this report from Washington.

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