Ethics Alarms has spent a lot of time and space trying to clarifying the term hypocrisy, which like another term abused here by commenters, ad hominem attacks, is more often misused than used properly. Hypocrisy is conduct that proves insincerity and dishonesty (or, Hanlon Razor fans, stupidity), in which one’s conduct does not match one’s contemporaneously stated belief regarding what one’s conduct should be, under circumstances that suggest that the objective of the words was to deceive, by falsely claiming dedication to principles the speaker in fact does not possess or aspire to. Thanks to the orgy of hypocrisy that the Washington, D.C. funeral service for the late Senator John McCain this weekend deteriorated into and the equally hypocritical reporting on it, we now have a perfect example of hypocrisy for the ages.
Let’s start with the fact that a theme of the service was McCain’s alleged dedication to civility. The fact that the Senator openly planned his own funeral to settle scores and act on old grudges is the ultimate rebuttal of that claim. It was undeniably uncivil to dis-invite the President of the United States from what would otherwise be a display of unified and bi-partisan Washington community respect for a departed public servant. That was an insult, and intended as one. Insults are not civil. The retort to this is that the President was not civil to McCain, which is true. However, if the professional duty of civility is waived by another’s breach of it, then there is no such duty.
McCain’s own daughter launched the proceedings with her own uncivil rant, saying in part, “We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness—the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who lived lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.” Later, she added, “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great.”
In addition to being uncivil—I have never been to a funeral that consisted even in small part of veiled insults and attacks on someone else, and Marc Anthony aside, have always understood that using a funeral service for this purpose is boorish and unethical—the attacks on the President, like Meagan McCain’s, were cowardly. The man (and the office) being savaged wasn’t present, and the crowd was united in its hostility to the target. George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility cover that kind of conduct neatly:
89. Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
Leading up to the ceremony, the news media were equally dishonest in describing McCain. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post declared that McCain “never forgot that political opponents are not his enemies, and that there are things more important than winning elections.” Funny, it seems pretty clear that McCain regarded Donald Trump as his enemy, treated him as such, and made certain that his admirers would carry out his vendetta. The description also was historical revisionism, at least through the news media’s own assessments. After fawning over the “maverick” when he was challenging George W. Bush, journalists turned on McCain and discovered his dark side when he ran against a man the entire journalism establishment had decided to elect President. The Pew Research Center found that between the Republican National Convention’s close on September 4, 2008 and the final presidential debate on October 15, McCain’s media coverage was more negative than positive by a 4-to-1 ratio, and pundits like Milbank were writing statements like this one, from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who said ,“Even some of McCain’s former aides are disturbed by the 73-year-old’s hostile, vindictive, sarcastic persona.”
When it was George W. Bush’s turn to speak—his family had enhanced its stock with McCain by barring the President from Barbara Bush’s funeral—one of his accolades was that McCain “detested the abuse of power”, though not, apparently, sufficiently to do the right and responsible thing and give up power when he was no longer well enough to discharge his duties. Is an octogenarian Senator with aggressive brain cancer still fit to serve in the U.S. Senate for almost a year as his condition deteriorates? To ask the question is to answer it, yet McCain insisted on keeping his power to the end, in part so he could continue undermining the President of the United States. Let’s say McCain “detested the abuse of power” by others.
That’s hypocrisy too.
At the close of the ceremony, the last speaker, Barack Obama, scaled the heights of pompous and disingenuous rhetoric as only he can, saying, “So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, seems small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insults and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is borne in fear. John called on us to be bigger than. He called on us to be better than that.”
How were heads not exploding all over the cathedral? Obama pointed comments, like so many others before him, were small, petty and mean, and McCain had invited and sanctified the meanness by his own petty conduct in snubbing the President of the United States. Trump certainly leads the field in “bombast and insults,” but Obama’s own party and its journalist shills have been relentless purveyors of phony controversies and manufactured outrage. Obama has never mastered self-awareness, but it’s still stunning that even he could condemn “a politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is borne in fear” while participating in Trump-bashing in an inappropriate venue, while the target was conveniently absent. John McCain clearly did NOT call on the Washington political community “to be better than that.”
If he had, both President Trump and Sarah Palin would have been present.
Addendum: For the record, here are the tenets of George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility (including the one quoted above) that these celebrants of civility in public life openly trampled, with the tacit approval of John McCain There are fourteen in all.
1. Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
22. Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
36. Artificers and persons of low degree ought not to use many ceremonies to lords or others of high degree, but respect and highly honor then, and those of high degree ought to treat them with affability and courtesy, without arrogance.
41. Undertake not to teach your equal in the art himself professes; it savors of arrogancy.
42. Let your ceremonies in courtesy be proper to the dignity of his place with whom you converse, for it is absurd to act the same with a clown and a prince.
45. Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in public or in private, and presently or at some other time; in what terms to do it; and in reproving show no signs of cholor but do it with all sweetness and mildness.
47. Mock not nor jest at any thing of importance. Break no jests that are sharp, biting, and if you deliver any thing witty and pleasant, abstain from laughing thereat yourself.
48. Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precepts.
49. Use no reproachful language against any one; neither curse nor revile.
58. Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for ’tis a sign of a tractable and commendable nature, and in all causes of passion permit reason to govern.
59. Never express anything unbecoming, nor act against the rules moral before your inferiors.
65. Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion.
70. Reprehend not the imperfections of others, for that belongs to parents, masters and superiors.
89. Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.