(Note: This essay was originally published as “A Missed Opportunity to Celebrate True Heroes,” by The Hill on September 7, 2018. http://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/405404-a-missed-opportunity-to-celebrate-true-heroes )
In his reaction to the passing of John McCain, a true American hero, President Trump regrettably has missed a genuine opportunity to bring divided America together in mourning and reflection.
At a rally in Indiana on August 30, several days after McCain’s death, the president did not mention McCain. Rather he spoke again of his 2016 election win. He railed against the media, using again the anti-democratic phrase “enemy of the people.” Once again he stirred hatred and fear by labeling Hispanic gang members as sub-human, using the word “animals.” He invited his crowd to imagine “if Crooked Hillary Clinton had won.” He sowed division rather than unity.
Almost 2,450 years ago in ancient Greece, Athenian statesman Pericles did not pass up such an opportunity. To honor those fallen in battle during the first year of the Peloponnesian War, he gave one of the most famous speeches in Western history. Not only honoring the dead, he also reminded his fellow Athenians of their common democratic ideals and of their greatness. “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.” … “everyone is equal before the law.” What counts in public positions is not class, “but the actual ability which the man possesses.” “We are free and tolerant in our private lives, but in public affairs we keep to the law.” We respect especially those laws which protect the oppressed. “Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece….”
It is ironic that neither our president nor Vice President Mike Pence, who did attend the McCain funeral and spoke, took the occasion to remind us of our ideals and to inspire us. It was John McCain himself who did this eloquently in his final letter. “Liberty, equal justice, and respect for the dignity of all people….” “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” “We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history….”
He ended with words of inspiration: “Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history. We make history.”
About twenty years ago, I attended a conference in California where we discussed the ideas of the famous 17th century philosopher-scientist Francis Bacon. I learned much about him, but the greatest insight I gleaned was during a coffee break. I was speaking with a woman from Canada, a professor, who said, “I don’t have any children, but if I did, I would move to the US.” Quite surprised, I ask: “Why?” She replied: “Because in the United States, you still believe in heroes.” Canadians, she explained, seemed bent on cutting down all their heroes, except for some star athletes.
Coming of age in the 1950s and early 60s and watching TV shows like “The Lone Ranger,” “Superman,” and “Gunsmoke,” my early baby-boomer generation believed in heroes. Men had their weaknesses; however, they sought to do right, to seek justice, to be driven by moral principles. They spoke a moral vocabulary. They possessed a moral compass. In that age, presidents didn’t lie, at least they did not lie for vanity or personal gain. If they did, we took it as an exception and continued our faith in them. They never made statements like President Bill Clinton, “That depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” They did not portray themselves as absolute monarchs like Richard Nixon did when he said: “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” They, and other American heroes, did not seem obsessed with celebrity but rather with serving as exemplary citizens of our country. They had served honorably in World War II and Korea and had even led large invasion fleets to free captive continents from totalitarianism.
Heroes and stories of the heroic, real and mythical, are essential to the health and sustainability of a civilization. America’s culture wars are, in part, about our heroes—which ones are genuine, worthy of an honored place in America’s Story and worthy of holding up to our children as role models.
Because of his 60 years—five and one half as a POW—of honorable service to our country as a naval aviator and then senator, John McCain has earned the label of “American hero.” By not taking the high road—putting past differences aside and honoring McCain—President Trump has missed an easy opportunity to elevate himself and to elevate Americans together.
Fred Zilian is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI. He is the author of “From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s Army by the Bundeswehr.” Follow him on Twitter@Fred Zilian,