The passing of long-serving senator and two-time presidential candidate John McCain on August 25, 2018, spurred discussion in Washington this week. It also illustrates active attempts to shape a legacy and defend it from character assassination. Politicians and pundits use verbal and visual rhetorical strategies to create meaning from McCain’s long career
The news media has hailed McCain as an American hero for enduring torture during the Vietnam war. They have extolled his virtues as a “romantic conservative” who sought compromise in the quest to do what is right. They have praised him as noble and public-minded.
Yet, McCain has a complicated legacy. As Damon Linker writes in This Week, McCain did not take those strong, bipartisan stands often enough. Moreover, his choice of Sarah Palin for running mate gave voice to the right-wing populist tradition in the GOP, and he defended the war in Iraq long after it was clear it was failing.
One reporter pointed out, ‘how will John McCain be remembered’ and ‘how should John McCain be remembered’ are two separate questions. As Martijn Icks shows in last week’s CARP Lab blog post, when prominent figures die, those around them—enemies or friends—have a hand in crafting their public memory. This rhetorical shaping sometimes extends to wholly erasing them from public memory.
President Trump, however, seems recalcitrant to allow McCain’s memory to flourish as the bipartisan compromiser. In an act of nonverbal character assassination, President Trump bucked the trend of flying White House flags at half-staff from the news of a congressperson’s passing until their burial. They were lowered briefly over the weekend, then re-raised. It wasn’t until Monday, two days after McCain’s death, that President Trump issued an order to lower the flags until the funeral, after repeated criticism from the media (and despite repeated attempts to ignore the issue). (Flags at the U.S. Capitol and other government agencies remained at half-staff even after the White House raised their own.)
Trump also failed to issue a statement on the Senator’s death until two days later. The occasion of the Senator’s passing resurrected Trump’s campaign comments calling McCain a “loser” for being captured while in Vietnam. By contrast, media commentators have held up McCain as a symbol of decorum against the foil of the President as a way to assassinate the president.
Those close to the Senator are shaping his legacy in the plans for the funeral. And many of his colleagues in the Senate are offering their respect, too. His desk was draped in black with white roses on August 28.
McCain’s supporters are playing up the noble and bipartisan aspects of his public memory through the choice of his eulogizers: Barack Obama and George W. Bush, people to whom McCain lost presidential elections or bids. When the funeral occurs, the resulting visuals will become part of McCain’s legacy that future generations will debate, complicate, and potentially even assassinate.