TV is still the most powerful storyteller of American life. And the medium has been telling no story more powerfully this week than that of Sen. John McCain.
His death on Aug. 25 and the meaning of his life have been covered virtually nonstop on cable news since last Sunday, and it will continue through this Sunday with his burial at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. I can only imagine how moving those images might be.
The reporting, analyses and appreciations done in newspapers and on TV and online media platforms add up to the kind of coverage usually reserved for presidents. This is television in high-end, ritualized, ceremonial coverage that reinforces and teaches core national values even as it leads some viewers through a cathartic experience of collective mourning. This is the medium helping viewers say farewell to a public figure who has come to matter to some of them even though they might only know that figure through the screen.
The only non-president from the political realm to receive this kind of treatment in recent memory was Sen. Edward Kennedy, who died in 2009 after more than four decades in the Senate. And that moving coverage was as much a farewell to a generation of liberal leadership that included brothers Bobby and Jack, who were assassinated in the turbulent 1960s, as it was to him.
McCain would have been given a hero’s funeral no matter what, thanks to his record as a fighter pilot and prisoner of war from 1967 to 1973 in Vietnam, the details of which have been told repeatedly this week. The injuries he suffered and his refusal to take an offer of early release to stay with his fellow prisoners are examples of duty, honor, sacrifice and courage that most of us can only imagine.
His long career in the Senate also would certainly merit respectful coverage in its own right.
But you can you imagine as long a TV farewell for Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell?
Even former Kansas senator Bob Dole, who has a similar record of battlefield sacrifice (two Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars in World War II) and service in the Senate as McCain, is unlikely to be remembered with this much celebratory coverage. Like McCain, Dole also was the GOP candidate for president. (Dole in 1996, McCain in 2008.)
There is something else, something more culturally involved, in the amount of coverage we are seeing on McCain, particularly on cable TV this week. McCain’s professional life and career are in such stark contrasts to those of Donald Trump’s that they are nothing short of a repudiation of the values the president has come to represent.
McCain’s career is one of public service and sacrifice, while Trump’s is one of private gain and greed. While McCain went to the Naval Academy and off to war in Vietnam in the tradition of his father and grandfather, Trump pursued and gained a deferment for bone spurs.
Like McCain, Trump also followed his father’s lead into a career: The Justice Department investigated and sued Trump and his father, Fred, for housing discrimination in New York in the 1970s.
No single moment better captures the profound difference between McCain and Trump than a scene on the campaign trail in the presidential election of 2008, which seems to have been playing in an endless loop this week on TV.
“I gotta ask you a question,” a woman says during a question and answer session during a rally at a Minnesota high school. “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not a ... he’s an Arab.”
“No, ma’am,” McCain replies, taking the microphone from the woman. “He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
Compare that to Trump’s years-long stoking of the “birther” movement and his continued use of twitter and political rallies to denigrate opponents and incite crowds with chants like “Lock her up” for Hillary Clinton.
The notion of McCain’s life as a repudiation of Trump is not something cooked up by cable TV hosts or media analysts like me. McCain himself contextualized what he for stands in opposition to Trump when he made it clear that he did not want the president at any of his funeral services.
Meanwhile, in keeping with commitment to bipartisan values, he asked former Democratic President Barack Obama and former Republican President George W. Bush to present eulogies at his funeral service Saturday at the National Cathedral in Washington. He also asked Obama’s vice president, former Senate colleague Joe Biden, to speak Thursday at a memorial service at North Phoenix Baptist Church in Arizona.
With Trump in open war against the mainstream media, particularly non-Fox television outlets like CNN, it’s fair to question whether the wall-to-wall McCain worship on TV represents an in-your-face rebuke of the president by network news executives. But remember, TV is all about ratings, and ceremony — whether it’s a royal wedding or a state funeral — sells.
Accordingly, television kicked into its high ceremonial mode Wednesday with coverage from Phoenix, where McCain lay in state in the Arizona State Capitol.
This is one TV’s great powers that it discovered with coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. Nonstop, rolling network coverage from the shooting through Kennedy’s burial marked the moment when TV — not print or radio — became the principal storyteller of American life. For all the media movement to digital in recent years, TV still holds that role.
The McCain coverage is certainly nowhere near in length, intensity or cultural importance to what happened on TV or to the nation in 1963. But it is cut from the same cloth.
No institution does funerals like the military. One good reason is that members of the military are asked to risk their lives more than those in perhaps any profession. In part, the rituals of a military funeral are intended to remind survivors of the values for which their loved one or colleagues gave their lives.
The marriage of TV technology to military ritual makes for some of the most powerful images and sounds the medium can offer. Think of the lonely bugle call of taps at the graveside of Edward Kennedy as night started to fall when he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Think of the image of the bugler silhouetted against the darkening sky.
McCain himself wrote of the symmetry of his being buried at Annapolis “in the cemetery on the Severn back where it began.” It brings a poetic closure to the arc of his adult life of public service that was launched at the academy.
From a pure television storytelling perspective, the McCain funeral services have it all: a classically American hero (individualistic, self-sacrificing, honorable yet a bit roguish) with the imagery and symbolism to match. It would be captivating on that level alone. But coming at this moment, it taps into something more. We are engaged in an epic struggle for nothing less than the soul of this nation. Will we lose all sense of public service to the larger American community in an endless grab for personal gain for ourselves and members of our families only? Will we be a people who chant “lock her up,” and call our opponents “scum”?
Or will be a people who say, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
That’s what much of what the television coverage of John McCain’s life and death has been about this week, and in that sense, it is about all of us and what kind of an America we want to live in.
I have heard some media colleagues say they think there has been too much McCain coverage on TV.
In my book, at this perilous fork in the road of our nation’s history, you cannot cover this story enough.