“So much of our politics, public life, public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast, and insult, and phony controversies, and manufactured outrage,” former President Barack Obama said in his eloquent eulogy for Senator John McCain at the latter's funeral service in Washington's National Cathedral. Contrasting McCain to today's "politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is born of fear,” Obama said. “John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.”
This was one occasion when listening without watching was definitely insufficient. What we needed as a nation was to see the congregation - the closest thing to perfect attendance among our nation's political and cultural elite, as "bipartisan" an assemblage as we are likely ever to see. One wonders if they were all actually listening - and watching one another - and realizing how their very presence represented a rebuke to our current "politics, public life, public discourse" that have become so "small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast, and insult, and phony controversies, and manufactured outrage.”
As we have been reminded over and over this week, Senator McCain was a heroic veteran of the Vietnam War. But what seems to stand out for me in watching how he has been remembered is our national nostalgia for something pre-Vietnam (something indeed which our conflicted Vietnam experience helped destroy). To me McCain seemed to embody not the contentiousness of the Vietnam era and the "culture war" it unleashed, but the earlier values of the "Greatest Generation," the World War II generation, my parents' generation. He seemed to embody and live by the values my generation was initially instructed in, but which we collectively lost in various ways. What is being praised about McCain's politics reflects the older values of an admittedly imperfect but united nation, before we separated ourselves from one another and sorted ourselves out according to the vagaries of our ever-shifting divisive identity politics.
In mourning McCain, maybe we mourn as well the loss of that sense of national community and communal purpose that made possible precisely that politics of hope rather than fear that is increasingly now merely a memory.