Among Senator John McCain’s many accomplishments, we’ve learned in recent days, was weaving canny stagecraft into his own funeral. Charting out a four-day procession from Arizona to Washington to Annapolis, choosing symbolic eulogists and pallbearers, the Arizona Republican sought to hearken back to a mythic era of politics. And the Washington press corps lapped it up.
By the time his hearse rolled up to the Capitol Building on Friday—the word “dignity” written on its rear window—the portrait of McCain as the champion of anti-Trumpism, pressed into duty one last time, had been clearly and definitively etched into public consciousness. “In death, Mr. McCain found a way to have the last word,” The New York Times reported Thursday in a front-page breakdown of the arrangements.
It was a parting flourish by a clever media operator who was both a longtime fixture of Sunday shows and a favorite of reporters roaming the Senate hallways. And it worked: Personalized tributes, special reports, news alerts, live analysis, live blogs, and livestreams veered toward McCain’s integrity rather than comprehensive examinations of his record. His humanity propelled a week of saturation coverage in a media climate where news cycles tend to wither on the vine within hours.
But there was more to this flood of reminiscences than one man’s belief in the American ideal. McCain wrote a script that the political press corps was predisposed to follow. The death of a man many journalists personally liked provided firm footing to throw coded jabs against a man they overwhelmingly loath. It was a chance to eulogize and restore, however briefly, the rhetorical balance that establishment Washington craves, and that Donald Trump has thrown completely out of whack.
Take CNN, the outlet that often mirrors its foil in the Oval Office by turning sub-text into text. Breaking-news chyrons followed McCain to the grave as the cable-panel industrial complex revved into high gear. “Analysis” published on CNN.com informed us in its headline how “Trump ignores lessons from John McCain’s life.” Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash went so far as to attribute the storybook details of the lawmaker’s funeral proceedings to divine intervention.
The angels were crying. Here at CNN – just a few blocks away – no rain. Just there. https://t.co/0Pw2xWb90R
— Dana Bash (@DanaBashCNN) August 31, 2018
As Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer jointly lay a memorial wreath next to McCain’s body in the Capitol Rotunda, a Bash-led roundtable oozed with nostalgia for the norms that Trump has effectively demolished.
“I think what has been so nice in this really difficult week for so many people in Washington and around the country is to see that those moments are still possible,” said Julie Pace, Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press.
Politico’s Rachel Bade added later: “You have to wonder if anybody’s stopping and saying, OK, McCain was the best of bipartisanship. What can we learn from him? Are we going to take this forward? And I think that is what a lot of people are wondering. I don’t know if it changes anything here on Capitol Hill, but at least for a day we have that solidarity.”
Solidarity in the face of what, exactly? Or to be more precise: Who?
McCain made clear that Trump would not be welcome at his funeral, and the president, unable to help himself, took the snub with a characteristic lack of class. In this sense the contrasts between old and new Washington—teased out from Politico Playbook to nightly newscasts throughout the week—were self-fulfilling. And they continued through a final celebration on Saturday that was complete with two headliners, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who seasoned it all with a familiar duality.
“Ringing through Washington National Cathedral on a dreary morning were paeans to bipartisanship, compromise, and civility of the sort that seem to be under daily assault from all corners of the country, especially from the White House,” The Washington Post reported.
Mike Allen, dean of Washington insiderism, added Sunday in Axios that the celebration “reflected a broader dream that the United States is still capable of a saner politics.”
But absent from it all was any interrogation of just how this new Washington came to be. The Republican Party is now Trump’s—not McCain’s—and the shows of unity so eagerly applauded by the press were carried out by many of the same men who both enable the president and appear continually uninterested in keeping him in check: McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Vice President Mike Pence foremost among them. These powerful men, who said all the right things as news cameras rolled, were in turn rewarded with portrayals as mere bystanders.
Their pageantry gave off the aura of a more comfortable political world in which journalists are hands-off referees between politely warring factions. This alternate reality also provides the media class more daylight to absolve itself from sharing any guilt for harmful outcomes like, say, the erosion of democratic institutions.
Which is why at-times moving coverage in recent days centered on McCain’s significant virtues, as the war hero intended. His work as a lawmaker was steeped in honor and decorum; his personal bravery and commitment to pluralism were unquestionable. He exhibited—to borrow a term often misused by Trump and his acolytes—political correctness.
It’s a comforting narrative as the establishment finds itself under siege. What’s more, it’s easier to produce on deadline than reckoning with the legacy of a man who defended the invasion of Iraq for more than a decade and nominated a proto-Trumpian running mate in 2008. For all of McCain’s powerful rhetoric about putting country before party, he endorsed Trump’s candidacy (before unendorsing it), pined for the GOP blockade of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, and voted in favor of a hastily assembled tax cut that exacerbated a budget deficit now being used to rationalize proposals for a pay freeze for federal employees and even entitlement cuts.
Celebrating McCain’s civility is far easier than parsing such contradictions. But Washington’s problems go far deeper than the way the president conducts himself. What he understands—and what the media establishment would do well to learn—is that civility, for all its value, is not everything.
This piece has been updated to clarify McCain’s political record.