Witcover: In John McCain's shadow

While Sen. John McCain remains in Arizona fighting brain cancer, President Donald Trump continues his strange demeaning of the Vietnam war hero and former POW.

In lauding the passage of a $716 billion defense appropriations law bearing Mr. McCain's name, the president went out of his way to praise other members of Congress and various generals, calling the bill "the most significant investment in our military and our war fighters in modern history."


But he did so without a single mention of the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman for whom the massive piece of legislation was dedicated. Perhaps the omission could be seen as an improvement over Mr. Trump's brutal earlier appraisal of Mr. McCain as no hero because as a Navy pilot he was shot down, seriously wounded and captured in North Vietnam, serving five years in the prison sarcastically dubbed by inmates the Hanoi Hilton.

As the son of the American military commander in the Vietnam theater, Mr. McCain was offered release as an obvious enemy propaganda stunt, but he refused while other American prisoners remained.


Mr. Trump, who received multiple draft deferments for a minor foot disability in the Vietnam War years, chillingly proclaimed that Mr. McCain was no hero "because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured."

The sad saga suggested Mr. Trump's well-known hunger for ego gratification may have been in play.

The Arizona senator, the Republican Party's losing presidential nominee in 2008, was never reluctant to join those criticizing Mr. Trump for his harsh words and ugly behavior. In 2017, Mr. McCain capped his opposition to the new president by conspicuously leaving his sick bed to cast the deciding Senate vote that quashed Mr. Trump's efforts to kill former President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare by its GOP foes.

On that occasion, Mr. McCain came to the Senate in the early hours with cameras rolling and signaled his opposition with a dramatic thumbs-down to the chair. As recently as this June, Mr. Trump, who never forgets so public a rebuke, harkened back to that moment, saying "one senator decided to put the thumb down, later in the morning. That is not a good thing when he put his thumb down."

The feud continues at a distance, with Mr. McCain among the most critical senators of Mr. Trump's repeated cozying up to the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. In the wake of the Helsinki summit, Mr. McCain said Mr. Trump's failure to confront Putin directly on the Russian meddling, confirmed by his own intelligence community, was "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,"

John McCain physically may be a shade of his former self today as a fierce, straight-talking political adversary. But in the process, he remains a widely lauded true American hero — and more than that a stand-up guy to bullies and those who he believes demean the American political process he reveres.

As long as he has the strength, he can be depended on to hold Donald Trump to the standards of the old Republican Party establishment, in both substance and manners, as he fights for his own life against the cancer that has yet to silence him.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is