Among the motifs that threaded the death and commemoration of Sen. John McCain – who was to be laid to rest today at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland – was the notion that he was a straight shooter. After all, his 2000 presidential campaign bus was called the Straight Talk Express. You might not like everything he had to say but you respected him for saying it.
President Donald J. Trump’s admirers will also tell you that what they admire about their man is that he “tells it like it is.” Yet the contrast in their straight talk couldn’t be greater and it was on full display at Saturday’s magnificent funeral service for McCain at Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C.
Daughter Meghan – co-host of ABC’s “The View” and her father’s Antigone – set the tone with an emotional, eloquent eulogy. "We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served,” she told some 4,000 mourners, who included another famous daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner.
It wasn’t Meghan McCain’s only veiled reference to the Trumpet. "The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again,” she said, “because America was always great.” That line got the loudest applause of the morning. Not since Charles, Earl Spencer’s fiery jabs at the royal family at the funeral of his sister Diana, Princess of Wales – delivered 21 years ago this week – has a eulogy been so perfectly pointed in its commentary. It was also a reminder that you can’t really tell it like it is unless you are willing to tell it like it is about yourself, warts and all.
"We live in an era where we knock down old American heroes for all their imperfections,” McCain said of her father, “when no leader wants to admit to fault or failure. You were an exception and gave us an ideal to strive for."
John McCain was an aspirational figure, and aspiration is in short supply these days when the “leader of the free world” is a former reality show star with little sense of reality. If you try to be something you are not, you’re labeled inauthentic.
But when Andre Agassi said in a 1989 Canon camera commercial that “Image is everything” – for which he was lambasted – he was partly right, for who we are is also who we hope to become. Cary Grant once said he played the elegant, witty Cary Grant so often he became him. The real Cary Grant – born Archibald Alec Leach to a working-class, alcoholic father and a mother who was later institutionalized – might’ve been closer to the Cockney character he played in the 1944 film “None But the Lonely Heart.”
Similarly, Pat Nixon, wife of embattled President Richard Nixon, said that she often pretended to be happy until she became happy. For that, she was labeled “plastic Pat.”
But she and Grant weren’t phony. It isn’t phoniness to try to be your best self every day. It isn’t phoniness to “put on a happy face,” as the song says, when your heart is breaking. It isn’t phoniness to have good manners. And it certainly isn’t phoniness to admit your flaws to move beyond them.
This isn’t phoniness; this is transcendence.
John McCain has found his transcendence. It’s up to us, the living, to seek and secure ours.