August 28, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
In Death, John McCain Becomes a Potential Wedge Issue
Dishonoring his memory threatens to split Trump's support among veterans.
I get a sense from some that attention yesterday to the height on the flag atop the White House was much ado about nothing. There are real policy issues demanding our focus. Leave it to the news media to obsess over empty gestures and symbols.
While the press does make a fetish of trivialities, this wasn’t trivial. How the president honors John McCain, who died Saturday, matters. It matters in more ways than one.
Trump did, briefly, before having the White House flag raised Monday to full mast. That choice sent a clear message: honor for dedicating one’s life to the service of one’s country is conditional. It depends on whether the sitting president likes you. (Trump relented, ordering the flag back to half mast, after overwhelming public outcry.)
Second, as Bloomberg Opinion’s Jonathan Bernstein notes frequently, Trump fails to do the most basic requirement of any president: acting as the head of state.
In that capacity, it doesn’t matter that McCain feuded with Trump until the day he died. As Bernstein said: “Trump thinks he was elected ruler, but in reality he was hired to do a job. And one of the requirements is keeping his mouth shut when he might want to spout off his opinions; another is pretending to respect someone he detests.”
This failure to do what’s expected of presidents—indeed, Trump’s failure to act presidential in any way—is putting appreciable distance between things that normally have no daylight between them: the presidency and public ceremony. Past presidents were welcome to attend royal weddings, give eulogies to great leaders, celebrate Super Bowl winners, and participate in other displays of state, religious and cultural ritual.
Not Trump. He’s president non grata.
“We’re not talking about a president going and having a rally in a state that voted against him,” Tim Naftali, a presidential historian and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum told the Post’s Ashley Parker. He added:
“We’re talking about a president who can’t even go and participate in a ritual where presidents are usually welcomed, and that is one of the consequences of his having defined the presidency in a sectarian way.”
While McCain’s death has exposed a gap between the presidency and public ceremony, his death is exposing another kind of gap: between Trump and American veterans. According to CNBC’s Christina Wilkie, the president’s treatment of McCain, especially with respect to the flag, has aroused something in the veteran community.