In 1885, Ulysses S. Grant was dying. And even though his presidency had been tarred by scandal, and his command of the Union Army in the Civil War had destroyed much of the South, he was honored from New Orleans to Boston.
“The dying Grant exerted a powerful symbolic influence upon the American imagination,’’ Ron Chernow writes in his new Grant biography. “Union and Confederate soldiers alike expressed concern for his plight.’’ Several Confederate officers visited Grant in his final days. Two were pallbearers at his funeral.
That’s how it was in U.S. politics: The adage “never speak ill of the dead’’ applied also to the dying, including one’s enemies.
Until now. In what are probably Sen. John McCain’s last months, the former POW and Republican presidential nominee has been denounced as a traitor, a collaborator, an egomaniac, a blowhard, a fake, a liberal and, worst of all, irrelevant.
It’s a sign of the times, says Thomas Whalen, a Boston University political historian: “We’ve devolved to the point politically where everything is fair game.’’ Even illness and death.
McCain, diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, has mostly been lionized by fellow members of Congress, constituents and the public. But:
- A White House staffer joked in a meeting that the administration didn’t need to worry about McCain’s opposition to the candidate for CIA director because he was dying; after the comment became public, the White House issued no apology.
- Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a Fox News analyst, claimed that when McCain was held during the Vietnam War “torture worked on John. … That’s why they called him ‘Songbird John.’’’
- When it was reported that McCain did not want Trump — who during the 2016 campaign said he was a hero only because he was captured — invited to his funeral, McCain’s fellow Senate Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah termed the desire “ridiculous.’’ (He later wrote McCain a letter of apology.)
Online, McCain is commonly accused, despite the findings of an official inquiry, of negligence in a Vietnam War aviation accident that killed 134 on the carrier USS Forrestal. He’s also been called a crybaby and an egomaniac, “a liberal in wolf’s clothing’’ and “the foulest mouth in the Senate.’’
On Twitter, someone asked: “Who’s got John McCain in the Dead Pool?’’
One tweet with McCain’s photo, headlined "TRAITOR," falsely accuses him of giving information “that led to the downing of 60 aircraft’’ and training “North Vietnamese air defense personnel.’’
These slanders do not go unnoticed. McCain’s daughter Meghan, a host on the TV show The View, tweeted of the TRAITOR claim, “I regret responding to such a hideous comment.’’
McCain isn’t the only one who’s fair game. When Melania Trump was hospitalized for kidney surgery, novelist Stephen King, a political liberal, tweeted: "Not to be snarky, but Melania can probably use a week’s rest from Blabbermouth Don. Sounds heavenly to me."
The phenomenon “goes deeper than politics,’’ says Robert North Roberts, co-author of the Encyclopedia of Presidential Campaigns. “It’s the polarization of the entire nation.’’ Like rampaging soccer hooligans, we take our side, no matter how boorish our players or how honorable the other’s.
Convenient amnesia, ever since Hamilton
Before things changed, many public figures got the benefit of the doubt at the end of life.
► After Sen. Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2008, he remained as partisan as ever. His first vote upon returning to Washington after beginning cancer treatment was to break a GOP filibuster. And after the election he worked zealously for the most controversial piece of legislation of the past decade, the Affordable Care Act.
But Kennedy was widely praised by members of both parties — including McCain and Hatch. Whalen notes that there was even little or no mention of Chappaquiddick (the island where a young woman died after the senator drove the car in which they were riding off a bridge and failed to immediately report the accident.)
► In 1974 President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace during the Watergate scandal. But when he took sick and died 20 years later, he was widely hailed as a Cold War statesman who’d established diplomatic relations with Communist China and détente with the Soviet Union. Eulogists at his funeral included the Democratic president, Bill Clinton.
► After leaving the White House, former President John Quincy Adams was elected in 1830 to the House of Representatives. He became one of the nation’s most implacable opponents of slavery, and thus a villain across the South.
Yet when he returned to the House chamber in 1846 after a stroke, Southern members were among those who gave him a standing ovation. And when he died two years later, the Southerners praised his character and patriotism – even though his final vote, moments before collapsing, was a loud "no" to a resolution thanking some generals for service in the Mexican War (which Adams had opposed).
► Alexander Hamilton was the most controversial of the Founding Fathers. But when he was killed in a duel in 1804, even the viciously partisan newspapers of his rival, Thomas Jefferson mourned rather than cheered. Hamilton’s reputation, in decline at the time of the duel, soared.
Why do we do it?
There are at least four reasons for why McCain has been attacked in ways that once would have been unthinkable:
- Social media
Here’s M. J. Crockett, Yale psychologist: “Digital media may exacerbate the expression of moral outrage by inflating its triggering stimuli, reducing some of its costs, and amplifying many of its personal benefits.’’ Translation: Trolling is hard to resist, easy to do and may impress your friends.
A decade ago, social media was not the force it is now. Ted Kennedy’s memory was one of many beneficiaries. “Kennedy got a pass,’’ says Whalen. “He might not today.’’
And if something negative was said of the sick or dying, the news media might censor it, sometimes to protect a candid official from himself. “This sort of thing always went on, but you wouldn’t get a forum for it,’’ Roberts says.
- Donald J. Trump
The president has long articulated two key personal philosophies: never apologize and always retaliate. (“Get even with people,’’ he once said. “If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard.’’)
So McCain’s opposition to Trump’s presidential candidacy and his vote against his own party’s attempt to repeal the ACA cannot be forgotten, and the White House staffer’s remark cannot be walked back. Trump is not the first president to nurture such instincts; so did Nixon and Andrew Jackson. But, says Roberts, “We’ve never had a president who’s so open about it.’’
- The 2016 election
The result was close enough to make Republicans nervous about subsequent elections. Seeing little margin for error, they’ve been especially sensitive to dissent in their ranks, even from a maverick such as McCain. Given his relatively low approval rating, Roberts says, Trump couldn’t behave differently even if he wanted to: “Trump knows what he has to do: attack anyone, dying or not, who he considers an opponent.’’
- John McCain
McCain may not deserve the abuse heaped on him, but he certainly courted it.
For instance, he not only voted against the bid to repeal the ACA, but did so provocatively on the Senate floor. One critic tweeted: “I will remember John McCain only for his melodramatic thumb down on the Obamacare repeal effort. This was the day he chose his legacy. I don’t give two hoots what he thinks now – dying or not.’’
Weep not, however, for the good old days. The “speak no evil’’ tradition gave rise to eulogies filled with lies and obituaries devoid of facts. Not only were those sentiments untrue, they weren’t even personal; they were just good politics.
Until they weren’t. The new politics is blood sport, one that doesn’t stop at the threshold of the cancer ward, or even the morgue.