Witcover: The twin messages of the McCain tributes

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Last week's extraordinary memorial services honoring the late Sen. John McCain in Arizona, the nation's capital and the Naval Academy were attended by three former presidents. But they also carried a largely unspoken rebuke to the sitting president uninvited to all of them.

The prime focus obviously and necessarily was on McCain's accomplishments as a longtime U.S. senator, former Republican presidential nominee and Vietnam War hero, wounded and tortured as a prisoner of war.


But for all the pomp and circumstance, inevitably hanging over all of it was the contrast between the outpouring of a nation's genuine respect and esteem for McCain's long life of true public service and Donald Trump's ugly final insult to him.

As the nation openly mourned, the current Oval Office occupant figuratively cowered there, violating the honored custom of lowering the flag over the White House to half-mast in salute to McCain as a national hero. Only public outrage finally obliged Mr. Trump to have it lowered.


The gesture was a coda to his earlier insult to McCain when he remarked that he preferred "heroes who are not captured." Although Mr. Trump went unmentioned in the serial memorial tributes to McCain's passing, there were enough veiled references to remind the nation of the little man who wasn't there.

Retired Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as retired Vice President Joe Biden in Phoenix, offered powerful, notably bipartisan odes to McCain. They rightly focused not only on his patriotism in war but also on his willingness to compromise across party lines in the Senate over his more than 30 years on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Obama indirectly took an implied slap at Mr. Trump, saying: "So much of our politics seems small and mean and petty. Trafficking in bombast and insult, phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It's a politics that pretends to be brave and tough but is instead born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that, to be better than that."

Fellow Republican George Bush said McCain "detested the abuse of power and would not abide bigots and swaggering despots" -- though the man called "Dubya" often had displayed more than a bit of swagger himself.

One other speaker at the principal memorial at the Washington National Cathedral on Saturday pointedly addressed the missing elephant in the room. McCain's daughter Meghan deftly if conspicuously lashed out at Mr. Trump by inference, angrily observing, "The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America has always been great."

The comment, coming during a somber church service, mocked Mr. Trump's 2016 campaign boast to "make America great again" and drew rare applause in the staid cathedral. Her father, she said, "was the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near to the sacrifice he gave so willingly, not the opportunistic appropriation of those who lived lives of comfort and privilege."

For four straight days last week, the McCain memorial marathon from Arizona to Annapolis dominated the American news cycle, particularly on television.

That reality must have compounded Mr. Trump's worst nightmare of being blocked out of the sun by the respectful and even adoring salutes to a genuine national hero and treasure.


Whenever a real American hero leaves the scene, the customary habit is to give him or her a generous sendoff in the nation's hearts and news media. McCain's outsized public farewell was just that in spades. It probably didn't hurt that his openness with the press over his long career found him many lasting advocates.

But Mr. Trump's transparent snub and hostility toward McCain was magnified in a most unfavorable way in these last days. For once, the Trump three-ring circus was relegated to the small print in the nation's newspapers and on its television screens, in deference to the last chapter of the McCain drama. That may have been the cruelest cut of all to our reigning reality star endlessly hungry for public acclaim.

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