Whatever one may have thought of his politics, it is hard to deny John McCain's bravery during his service in Vietnam. The years he spent as a POW in the "Hanoi Hilton," enduring unbearable physical and psychological torture, are a feat of endurance few can imagine going through. Democrats and Republicans who have paid tribute to him these last few days have rightly commended him for this -- and even his torturers in Vietnam.
But president Donald Trump has stood virtually alone in his contempt for both the late Senator and his war record, famously stating that McCain was, "A war hero because he was captured...I like people that weren't captured." Conversely, Trump famously got out of the draft due to alleged bone spurs, and has never bothered visiting American troops in the Middle East since he took office (which McCain frequently did).
McCain remained a vocal opponent of the President for the rest of his life, retracting his endorsement in 2016, killing his attempted repeal of the ACA, and calling his press conference in Helsinki next to Vladimir Putin "disgraceful."
Yesterday, Trump backed away from any pretense of mourning McCain, raising the flags over the White House from half-mast to full-mast, after lowering it on Sunday. Although some have argued that this is in line with standard practice, the court of public opinion deemed it a raised middle finger, since Trump gives the orders regarding the flag. Notably, the flags were re-lowered later that day.
But most embarrassing was Trump's reticence to talk about McCain with the press. Apart from a tweet sending his "sympathies" to his family, he said nothing about the man himself despite the press asking him on three separate occasions to do so: once in the Oval Office, once in the Rose Garden, and once in the Cabinet Room. The image of him shutting up like a clam in the face of their questions speaks for itself.
According to CNN, Trump's behavior caused great consternation amongst his staff, and he resisted their efforts to get him to change his behavior. After much arm-twisting, he finally delivered a statement yesterday that said in part, "Our hearts and prayers are going to the family of Sen. John McCain. There’s going to be a lot of activity over the next number of days. And we very much appreciate everything that [he] has done for our country." But by then, it was too little, too late: his silence had spoken volumes.
Vietnam Pays Tribute to McCain
The most embarrassing part of this saga is not that Donald Trump couldn't bring himself to say kind words about a man he disliked - did anyone expect anything less at this point? - it's that while he stewed in his grievances, the Vietnamese government paid kinder tributes to McCain than he did. Yes, a Communist, former enemy nation that did unspeakable things to McCain for five years spoke with more eloquence and reverence for him than the President of the nation he served.
This is in large part because of his record. As Senator, McCain worked with his colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran John Kerry to normalize relations between the two countries in the 1990s, lifting the sanctions the U.S. placed on it. At the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnamese foreign minister Pham Binh Minh wrote in a book of condolences that he "was a symbol of his generation of senators, and of the veterans of the Vietnam War…It was he who took the lead in significantly healing the wounds of war, and normalizing and promoting the comprehensive Vietnam-US partnership." Vietnam's U.S. Ambassador, Ha Kim Ngoc, offered similar words of praise.
Although McCain could never fully forgive the men who tortured him, he visited the country several times after his release, saying that he had "no reason...to hold a grudge...[or] hating the Vietnamese...I hold no ill will toward them." That said, Colonel Tran Trong Duyet, who ran the Hanoi Hilton, told the press that he felt "very sad" to learn of his passing, adding, "I liked him personally for his toughness and strong stance...Out of working hours, we considered each other friends." Although it's odd to hear one of the men responsible for McCain's imprisonment say that he considered him a friend, it's still telling that he offered condolences on his passing more quickly than Trump did. Similar tributes have poured in at the monument erected at the site where McCain was captured after his plane crashed.
McCain's willingness to help the Vietnamese people after what they did to him demonstrates that he understood the power he held as a US Senator, and how bearing a grudge would affect his use of it. Trump, on the other hand, wields power like a schoolyard bully and is so vindictive he cannot even pay respect to a man who was tortured for half a decade for his country. The qualities McCain possessed led his former enemies to pay him tribute, and maybe that's why Trump cannot bring himself to speak on behalf of a man who outclassed him in every respect.