Honor, duty, Trump

Plato once observed that there are several categories of men, including "lovers of honor" and "lovers of gain." The sharp contrast between the two approaches was on display Monday in Philadelphia and Washington. One of the public figures involved proved himself (once again) an embarrassment of a national leader, the other was presented the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center for leadership in pursuit of freedom.

If there is a purpose to President Donald Trump and Sen. John McCain existing in the same universe at the same time and in the same country and even as members of the same political party, it is surely to force Americans to grapple with their understanding of integrity and leadership. On the day Senator McCain was giving a memorable speech in Philadelphia condemning "half-baked, spurious nationalism," the sitting billionaire president was in the Rose Garden falsely accusing former President Barack Obama and his predecessors of not calling the families of fallen soldiers.


It didn't take the fact-checkers long to prove the president wrong. There are enough televised examples of Mr. Obama or of George W. Bush (not to speak of any number of presidents before them) joining families as the bodies of deceased serviced members returned to Dover Air Force Base or receiving Gold Star families in the White House to disprove Mr. Trump almost instantly (and that doesn't even count those families his predecessors called on the phone). Indeed, the president was backtracking during the same news conference suggesting that maybe Mr. Obama "did sometimes and maybe sometimes didn't. I don't know. That's what I was told." As set-the-record-straight statements poured in from Mr. Obama's rightfully angry former aides, the White House was quickly shifting ground as well — White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claiming "The president wasn't criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact." And what "fact" was that? Apparently, that "sometimes they [presidents] call, sometimes they send a letter, other times they have the opportunity to meet family members in person."

But, of course, President Trump wasn't making the point that there are various ways to console grieving families, he was trying to say his phone calls are a leap beyond what others had done in the past, presumably letters written by staff. He had been embarrassed by the fact that he had not yet contacted by any means the families of four U.S. special forces members killed nearly two weeks ago in Niger. The president did what he always does when criticized, he lashed out. In the Trump-verse, all are lesser, all are expendable, all pale compared to him.


Senator McCain had more important matters on his mind. At his award presentation, he expressed worry about U.S. foreign policy, the Trump administration's failure to assert U.S. leadership, its abandonment of U.S. ideals formerly advanced around the globe, its preference to engage in scapegoating rather than problem-solving. "We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don't," he said. "We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn't deserve to."

We frequently disagree with Senator McCain's hawkish point of view, as well as his positions on a variety of issues. But there's simply no question that the proud Arizona maverick is an honorable man. The former Vietnam POW, the son of a four-star admiral, graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, survivor of torture and now battler of brain cancer is surely the closest Congress has to a hero living in its midst. Whether he is standing up to his party's insane push to deny health care to millions of Americans or pointing out the simple truth that we are a "land of ideals, not of blood and soil" (a reference to the Nazi chant repeated in Charlottesville), Senator McCain deserves the nation's respect. As if to make the point even clearer, Mr. Trump told a D.C. radio station Tuesday that he may yet take his revenge on the senator for daring to criticize him "and it won't be pretty." Mr. McCain's response? "I have faced tougher adversaries."

Yet we can't help but notice that it is Mr. Trump, Plato's "lover of gain," who currently occupies the White House and not someone like Mr. McCain. What does this reality say about the rest of us? What does it mean that we choose a man who lies — frequently, obviously, self-aggrandizingly — but pass over someone of virtue and integrity? Plato had one other category. He observed that are also "lovers of wisdom." Perhaps what we all need most desperately is a bit more of that last quality so we can better spot the other two.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.