That was the patriotic slogan of John McCain’s presidential campaign eight years ago, uttered by the Arizona Republican to express a higher purpose than partisan, ideological or career motivations. Behind that brief phrase was the primacy of the nation — not necessarily above family or religion, perhaps, but certainly above party.
It is not an easy ideal to uphold, especially in our polarized national politics. For years the former prisoner of war could claim, more plausibly than most American politicians, that he has tried to live by those words.
At the moment, McCain remains among the craven Republican officials who have endorsed Donald Trump for president, even though they know he is unfit to fill that office — and especially the role of commander in chief. By now, nobody expects principle above partisanship from leaders like Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan, but McCain was supposed to be different.
One of the earliest signs that Trump is unfit for command, ironically, was his slur of McCain, whom he disparaged for his captivity by the North Vietnamese, in a war that the real estate scion contrived to avoid because of “bone spurs.” When he said, more than a year ago, “I like people who weren’t captured,” he mocked the sacrifice of every soldier who ever suffered in a POW camp.
That remark alone was enough to disqualify him from leading this country’s armed forces. But he went beyond that last week when he disparaged the Gold Star family of Captain Humayun Khan, a hero whose death in Iraq has been dishonored repeatedly by Trump and his supporters. That too would have been enough to prove him unfit.
But as everyone knows, Trump has said and done much more to demonstrate that he is the least qualified candidate for president, in character, temperament and profound ignorance, ever nominated by a major party.
Of special concern to McCain, perhaps, should be Trump’s enthusiasm for waterboarding and even more barbaric forms of torture, which he has vowed to order our soldiers to perpetrate, regardless of our treaty obligations, laws and national traditions that date back to George Washington. Having spoken out against torture repeatedly, as both a victim of horrific abuse in North Vietnam and as a leading member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain must be repelled by Trump’s crude and stupid remarks on the subject. Those statements, too, show why he must never wield authority over the American military.
Then there is the strange and troubling relationship between Trump and the Russian authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin, whose mutual admiration suggests something more sinister than a desire for better relations — especially given the murky business and political relationships with Russia that surround Trump and his advisers.
Because he refuses to release his tax returns, voters have no way to know the extent of his financial connections with the oligarchs who now rule the increasingly aggressive Russian state. And he seemed to encourage Russian intelligence services to wage cyber warfare against his political adversaries — a reckless statement that was unimaginable coming from someone who proposes to defend this country against such an attack. The only question now is whether he is a witting agent of a hostile and undemocratic power.
As for Trump’s collected musings on foreign and security affairs, his policy remarks are so wild and harebrained as to verge on insanity — from his dismissal of “obsolete” NATO, the structure that has guaranteed peace in Europe for decades, to his musing aloud about the possibility of using nuclear weapons and allowing them to proliferate across Asia.
McCain knows all this and more about Trump. He also knows Hillary Clinton from their service together in the Senate. He likes and respects her, and has betrayed no doubt that she is highly qualified, by experience and disposition, to serve as president.
Yet he stands resolutely behind Trump, despite the insults that the Republican nominee continued to pour over him by refusing to even reciprocate his endorsement, as he just did, grudgingly. Of course, McCain doesn’t really need that endorsement. What he needs is the support of Trump’s Arizona fans, as he tries to hold onto his Senate seat this fall. That is the sole reason he refuses to do what he knows is the only right thing.
While his daughter Meghan blasts away daily at Trump on Twitter and his speechwriter Mark Salter tweets #ImWithHer, the old Navy pilot ignores their example. Almost 80 years old, he is behaving as if he thinks his Senate career is worth all the undeniable dangers that a Trump presidency would portend for America and the world.
“Country first” requires McCain to repudiate Trump, tell the truth about what he represents, and accept the political consequences. By refusing to make that choice, he is betraying himself, and us. He can still repeat those two words, but their meaning is gone.