Throughout most of 2016, many essayists and commentators offered a similar suggestion to Donald Trump. I may even have been among them — the last presidential campaign feels like it happened a lifetime ago. Many recommended that Trump drop his bid to become president and instead play the role on a television show.
It was clear to all who watched the campaign that Trump had honed his television skills to a high art. The choice on almost any given day in 2016 was to pay attention to Donald Trump or refuse to pay attention to anything at all. Throughout his many missteps, he somehow stayed upright, and became walking proof that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
Those who have followed politics closely were trying to remind Trump that campaigning is almost nothing like the drudgery of governing. The endless meetings, the constant reminder of the world’s complexity, the thankless work of protecting American people and ideals — that never seemed to interest candidate Trump all that much.
We hoped against hope that he would end his campaign by acknowledging as much, revealing the whole effort as one extended-but-captivating piece of performance art. Our hopes — and maybe his, for all we know — were dashed when he somehow pulled out a victory on November 6, 2016.
What followed proved that we weren’t completely wrong. Trump shuffled and reshuffled his staff based on how they looked doing the jobs — playing the roles — he assigned them. He hired people with no relevant experience because they “looked the part.” When multiple sources leaked the White House’s obsession with “central casting,” it drew no denials. The official response could have been summarized as a shrug.
After the parade of auditioning celebrities streaming through Trump Tower came the inauguration with fictionalized attendance figures. Then came the indignities with dignitaries, scolding the Australian president, avoiding Germany’s chancellor, confiding and then denying his whispers to Mexico’s president.
And the travel! The world has been swaddled in red carpeting to soothe and satisfy the president’s never-ending need for regal optics. It may take him a couple of years to convince organizers, but don’t bet against that military hardware parade he has envisioned himself presiding over.
The president has shown less interest in presiding over the government itself. But that can be seen now as an opportunity for another national figure to fill that void.
Sen. John McCain will never be president, but that may have always mattered less to him than being presidential. As he battles the same brain cancer that took another senator whose ambitions never quite reached the White House, he should see in the months ahead a chance to do the things that great presidents do.
As Ted Kennedy defied his own health risks to advocate for health care reform, McCain will be remembered for his dramatic refusal to dismantle it. He spoke eloquently from the Senate floor for the need to restore “regular order” and abandon the gratuitous partisanship that has poisoned the well in Washington since Kennedy died in 2009.
McCain’s statesmanship is desperately needed right now, as his Republican colleagues have flouted his advice, rushing through a tax bill that gets less popular with voters with each passing day. There have been no committee hearings on the bill. No Democrat has been allowed to even see the bill that will be voted on, much less offer any improvements. If the bill passes, it will be done bypassing a filibuster — as Obamacare’s final passage did.
McCain has the opportunity to cut a presidential profile of courage here. He can insist — again — that the Senate return to its regular order. He can stand above partisanship, refusing to be dragged down by the Capitol’s prevailing zero-sum mentality. He can restore dignity for America’s governing institutions, and inspire future leaders to follow his example.
McCain can lead us as a nation to our best and highest vision of ourselves. There’s no reason to believe the White House will be bothered if McCain leads us, since his way was cleared by abdication.
God bless John McCain, and God bless America.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs