A missed opportunity to celebrate true heroes

A missed opportunity to celebrate true heroes
© Getty Images

In his reaction to the passing of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMark Kelly's campaign raises over M in days after launching Senate bid The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers wait for Trump's next move on border deal Mark Kelly launches Senate bid in Arizona MORE (R-Ariz.) , a true American hero, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' ACLU says planned national emergency declaration is 'clear abuse of presidential power' O'Rourke says he'd 'absolutely' take down border wall near El Paso if he could MORE regrettably missed a genuine opportunity to bring divided America together in mourning and reflection. 

At a rally in Indiana on Aug. 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 ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears Exclusive: Biden almost certain to enter 2020 race MORE had won.” He sowed division rather than unity. 

ADVERTISEMENT

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 reminded his fellow Athenians of their common democratic ideals and 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, he declared, “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,” Pericles said, while reminding Athenians that they should respect especially the laws protecting the oppressed, and added: “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 PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' Pelosi dismisses GOP criticism of Omar: 'They do not have clean hands' Pence rips Omar's 'inadequate' apology for tweets criticized as anti-Semitic MORE, who attended and spoke at the McCain funeral, took the occasion to remind us of our ideals and to inspire us. It was 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” and “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 20 years ago, I attended a conference in California where we discussed the ideas of 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 U.S.” Surprised, I asked why. “Because in the United States, you still believe in heroes,” she replied, explaining that Canadians 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 not 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, as 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, 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 the American story, worthy of holding up to our children as role models. 

Because of his 60 years — five and a half of those as a POW — of honorable service to our country, as a naval aviator and finally as a U.S. senator, John McCain earned the label of “American hero.” By not taking the high road — putting past differences aside and honoring McCain —Trump missed an easy opportunity to elevate himself and to elevate Americans together.

Fred Zilian, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, R.I. He is the author of “From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s Army by the Bundeswehr.” Follow him on Twitter @FredZilian.