“Never Speak Ill of the Dead” Seems to Be a Dying Tradition

John McCain

On August 25th, longtime Arizona senator, presidential candidate, and Vietnam POW John McCain passed away after a battle with terminal brain cancer. Politicians on both sides of the aisle lauded him as an American hero and patriot, but social media remembered McCain differently, often showing little mercy for his death.

McCain should not be completely insulated from criticism. His long tenure in public office was marked by criticism and controversy. He wasn’t a god, and he wasn’t an idyllic portrait of an American politician either. That doesn’t exist.

What should exist is decency and some level of respect for those who have rightly earned it.

Whether he earned respect or not during his life remains subjective, but if the standard is whether or not a politician worked towards making America better in their eyes, then McCain earned it. Obama certainly did not agree with McCain politically, but eulogized him, saying that “all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above your own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means.”

Similarly, when a woman told McCain she couldn’t trust Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, he came to Obama’s defense. “He’s a decent family man,” McCain said. “A citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” The two were famously friends and stayed that way during even the most polarizing of political opposition.

Even the White House engaged in some no holds barred disparaging of McCain. In May, after the Senator had been diagnosed with incurable cancer, reports surfaced of a White House official saying at a meeting that McCain’s opinion didn’t matter because he was “dying anyway.” If the White House is setting that kind of precedent, it’s almost impossible to hold anyone with an internet connection and Twitter to a higher standard.

A USA Today article blames the disrespect of the “never speak ill of the dead” ideology on social media, Trumpism, and the anything-goes political bloodbath of the 2016 election. Trump himself repeatedly snubbed McCain, infamously saying that he was a fake war hero and that he prefers people who weren’t captured. “The new politics is blood sport, one that doesn’t even stop at the threshold of the cancer ward, or even in the morgue,” the article concludes.

That’s a pretty depressing assessment of the state of American decency, but recent events don’t do much in the way of reassurance. It would be nice to believe that we have higher standards than those who currently occupy the White House, but only time will tell.

We can only speculate what Trump’s legacy will be. He’s known more for his inflammatory remarks, controversy, incompetence, denigration of American democracy… You get the idea. But will history remember him as a staunch supporter of strong American values? If hate is indeed an American value, the answer could be yes. Respect is earned, not given.

Cover image via Time.