Sen. John McCain was extraordinary and stood tall, and the American people are standing tall in their recognition of who and what he was.
We still appreciate self-sacrificing, patriotic war heroes. We like politicians who are honest, who put what’s right over what’s politically advantageous, who know how to compromise, who want the legislative branch to quit kowtowing to the executive, who are expert in such areas as the military and who fight for reputable old standards of all kinds. The failure of too many others to live up to McCain’s integrity, dignity and honor just may have lent something to the special embrace of McCain on the occasion of his passing, or so it seems to me.
An obvious example of those others is our president, someone who belittled McCain during the 2016 presidential campaign.
While praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump treated McCain’s captivity in Vietnam as a disgrace despite his striking acts of courage in the worst of circumstances. Trump has taken swipes at McCain since then and initially treated his death as nothing much. But it is not just Trump whose behavior is at odds with McCain’s gallantry. It is also a long list of politicians including Democrats who publicly mourned as he departed a scene where he was desperately needed.
Beyond that, all sorts of institutions are saying, hey, you know, we’ve had it with traditionalist ideas of right and wrong in these frightening times and we’re going to betray precious principles to save what they accomplished. I am thinking especially of The New York Times, a newspaper long considered just maybe America’s best and still blessed with brains and talent aplenty along with deep and wide-ranging news accounts. It seems particularly appropriate to visit this throne room because of all the talk lately about fake news, the vigorous response and the Times (along with the Washington Post) once sensationally evading press norms in a swipe at McCain.
This was in 2008, before the moment’s mania but still a time when ethical prohibitions were being repealed. There was a presidential campaign going on. It was in its primary phase. The Times decided the hour had come to disclose a great sex rumor — identifying it as a rumor — that McCain, a Republican candidate, was having an extramarital affair with a much younger lobbyist.
This was against every journalism rule in the book. Unless newspapers have firm evidence to back them up, they do not print rumors that, in the case of big-name politicians, happen to be easier to find than water at a water fountain. This particular rumor came from anonymous sources who themselves admitted they were just speculating. All of this helped make a case of McCain being caught up in conflicts of interest. The National Enquirer no doubt hated the competition.
The most striking, overall disappointment about the Times today is its divorce from objectivity. The way you best serve readers and keep your credibility as an unbiased, truthful purveyor of news, it was once believed, was to reserve opinions for opinion pages and keep them out of news accounts.
This has been changing with the argument that strict objectivity can get in the way of truth and is impossible anyway, but the issue is something else: adhering to simple, straightforward rules that keep subjective bias from taking charge. The Times now gives us a front page that is actually an editorial page on which virtually every story makes a case for an arguable, generally leftist point of view.
McCain was not perfect, any more than the rest of us, and early in his Senate career seemed to have gone out of his way to help a campaign donor being investigated by government regulators. He apologized and ever afterward worked especially hard to limit special interest influences. In other words, this exceptional man aimed to rectify his mistakes. It would be nice if Trump, other politicians in Washington and The New York Times would do the same.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at [email protected].