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Donald Trump, John McCain, and the Politics of Decency

If there’s an apt image of what the nation is going through these days,
it’s the impossible-to-forget portrait of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s
two-term governor, lounging at Island Beach State Park during the July
4th holiday weekend, while a budget dispute had closed the state’s parks
to the public. The governor sounded not at all embarrassed. “That’s the
way it goes,” he
said.
“Run for governor, and you can have the residence.” Gazing at his
blemished political future, and his extraordinary unpopularity, Christie
could just as well have quoted the Gillian Welch lyric “That’s the way
that it ends / Though there was a time when he and I were friends.”

Isn’t this something new? There’s a long history of politicians putting
their own interests first, but that’s usually been accompanied by
something for their constituents, as well as a capacity for shame.
During the ongoing debate over repealing, replacing, or simply
destroying the Affordable Care Act, when Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a
Republican representing West Virginia,
said,
“I did not come to Washington to hurt people,” it was like a disembodied
whisper from a forgotten corner of Capitol Hill.

As for Donald J. Trump, the former reality-show host and America’s
forty-fifth President—a man demonstrably immune to shame, or empathy—who
can keep up? More and more, he’s like someone winging it, saying and
doing whatever he pleases, seeming not to take notice, or to care, when
he reverses himself, all the while, like a subversive woodchuck,
undermining his country’s traditions and institutions. In the scheme of
things, it doesn’t matter much if Trump turns against Jeff Sessions, his
Attorney General—the first senator to endorse his candidacy, and someone
who’s been among his most unwavering supporters—unless Trump does so as
part of a scheme to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed
by Sessions’s deputy. One can only imagine the thoughts of Sean Spicer,
that most loyal, and diminished, of press secretaries, a Roman Catholic
who accompanied Trump to the Vatican but wasn’t invited to an audience
with the Pope. Sessions says that he wants to keep his job, and Spicer,
worn down and repeatedly humiliated, resigned last week; their fates
suggest that no one, apart from family members, can rely on any sort of
personal relationship with Trump.

What matters a lot more is a President’s behavior with international
leaders, especially in the absence of a reliable record that might
correct reversals of memory. Trump’s improvisational impulses, and
forgetfulness, are bound to increase concern about his relationship with
the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, with whom he met at least twice,
in Hamburg, during the G-20 conference. Their second meeting—or
hour-long conversation, or whatever it was—takes on more significance
because the only translator present was a Russian. (The American
interpreter on duty spoke Japanese.) On July 24, 1945, at Potsdam, when
President Harry Truman informed the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, that
the United States had developed a new, powerful bomb to use against
Japan, he did so without an American interpreter at his side; he wanted
the exchange to seem casual. The substance of that conversation,
conducted in front of many witnesses and lasting less than a minute,
has been written about by Truman and others, but a transcript of the
actual back-and-forth is lost to history. Did Truman, for instance, ever
use the words “atomic bomb”? Apparently not, but who can be sure? Did
Trump make any promises to Putin, or vice versa? Who knows? Although, as
Trump put
it
in another context, he’d “better hope that there are no ‘tapes.’ ” For
that matter, is Trump translatable?

The appearance of thoughtful public service is especially welcome in
these times. In a recent
column
for the Times, Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, a Republican, gave a
reminder of what that’s like, writing that Americans “want and deserve
reasonable, balanced, sustainable health care so that they can live
without the fear of bankruptcy if they get sick, our most vulnerable
neighbors are treated with compassion and those who seek to improve
their lives can get healthy, confront addiction and get work.” Compared
with Trump’s eagerness to sabotage what’s left, and workable, in the
Affordable Care Act, that sounded positively statesmanlike.

We’ve often heard statesmanlike views from John McCain, the Arizona
senator. He’s been capable of hawkish overreach, and political missteps,
but he has risen to a level of decency—of generosity and courage—when it
was called for. One celebrated moment came in the midst of the 2008
Presidential campaign, when people in a crowd questioned Barack Obama’s
legitimacy and McCain set them
straight
. Five years ago,
after Michele Bachmann, then a congresswoman, made the baseless, and
scurrilous, charge that Huma Abedin, the longtime aide to Hillary
Clinton, had “ties” to the Muslim Brotherhood, McCain, on the Senate
floor, said, “Huma Abedin represents what is best about America: the
daughter of immigrants, who has risen to the highest levels of our
government on the basis of her substantial personal merit and her
abiding commitment to the American ideals that she embodies.” He added,
“I am proud to know her, and I am proud, even maybe with some
presumption, to call her my friend”—another win for decency.

In his autobiography, “Faith of My
Fathers
,”
published in 1999, McCain wrote that “nothing in life is more liberating
than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that
encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone”—a theme that
became part of his brief, joyful Presidential campaign, in 2000, and is
bound to be recalled as people root for him in the wake of a
brain-cancer diagnosis. The thing is, McCain really meant it. Could
anyone imagine Donald Trump, or anyone in his orbit, fighting for,
speaking up for, or defending any cause larger than himself? The
question, alas, for all of us, answers itself.


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