WASHINGTON — He spoke more eloquently in death than in life.
With a grand farewell, the presidential stars in the sky suddenly shifted. As if he planned it.
John McCain, the late senator, R-Ariz., all but conducted his own elegy as he lie in state in the Capitol rotunda. Tears flowed freely. But it was more than that; it was a lesson in fair play and character in the American public square. To wit, a good loser is a better thing than a sore winner when it comes to the plum of the presidency. McCain fell short in two bids.
There they were, sitting in a row, in the National Cathedral: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. McCain's funeral gave us a chance to see how the former presidents are standing the test of time. One fell, one rose and Bush stayed about the same.
The bully pulpit was there again, a rare chance to speak to the American people and leadership class — gathered under a neo-Gothic tower or two — with nothing to lose.
McCain's blunt rebuke to President Donald Trump — uninvited again, like a skunk to a garden party, royal wedding or political funeral — was not lost on anyone.
But of all the dozen senior statesmen who spoke in the national house of worship, none had the courageous candor that McCain's daughter Meghan showed.
"America has always been great," she said, five words that cut up Trump's main, relentless refrain, that only he could make America great "again."
The establishment gathering clapped for her, her fighting father's daughter. But the question arose: Why couldn't a certain former president lift his voice as high as hers — or higher, to stand more strongly against Trump? The man, a Democrat, came ready to give a poetic, subtle oration that made no real waves of change in the body politic.
Yes, I'm looking at the 44th president. Obama presumably skipped Aretha Franklin's Detroit homegoing to stay home and craft his eulogy for McCain. In a classic character pattern, he played it pretty safe. Even with his sky-high approval rating.
But there was no stirring call to arms cleverly placed among the lines. Obama came across as an ethereal leader, not much skin and bones for his party, at the end of the day.
With Obama, it's not what he does, but what he doesn't do that keeps him from being truly great. He never closed the Guantanamo jail, as promised. He waged unending wars as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, while Clinton brought peace to raging Bosnia. He never clearly told the American public that Russia was tampering with the 2016 election.
Here, Obama had an opportunity to give his side of the political divide heart and his famously fleeting hope.
McCain, who famously defied Trump on landmark legislation — saving Obamacare — bestowed a generous gift upon Obama, when he reached across party lines to invite him to deliver a political eulogy. A blue-moon gift. No time to be timid.
Arguably, it's a time of national crisis as Trump drives the nation deeper into something like the Roman Empire. This was exactly what the republic's founders feared most, when the wishes and whims of one ruthless man — such as Julius Caesar — are all there is to governing. I'd take the great Caesar over Trump. He seemed to love Rome more than his life.
Even the Texan Republican senator Trump calls "Lyin' Ted Cruz" is courting presidential help in a tough re-election race. That's how running scared the 50 Republican senators are, clinging to a slender majority. A ferociously partisan judge, Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's Supreme Court nominee, will be walking on Senate water, starting after Labor Day.
Young Obama was McCain's opponent in the 2008 election. He's also the president whose legacy Trump is tearing down, from the "Dreamers" immigration program to the climate change Paris accords, which the world community signed onto. Trump told signers to get lost and also scuttled Obama's Iran nuclear deal.
Clinton, who made it to both breathtaking funerals, eulogized the Queen of Soul. There again, Obama missed a chance, this time for some pitch perfect political advice.
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit Creators.com.