No man in America is more entitled to the nation’s admiration and gratitude for sacrifice than John McCain. He’s a hero in anybody’s book, with no asterisks. An exclamation point, but no asterisk.
The criticism of a young White House aide was harsh for remarking, in a private working session where everything was off the record, that since the senator was “dying, anyway,” he should not be in the calculus for reckoning how the vote might go in the confirmation of Gina Haspel.
The aide, one Kelly Sadler, has been roasted and toasted since by critics large and small, Republican and Democrat, male and female, young and old. Many of her critics want her hanged at least once, flogged, twice beheaded and after that, seriously punished.
Her remark was trite and tasteless, exactly the kind of harsh and tasteless irreverence that might be overheard in almost any newsroom, from doctors and nurses in almost any big-city emergency room on a busy Saturday night, or around the water bucket at any saw mill or mining camp. Some of the harshest rebukes of Ms. Sadler came from oracles of the press, which is ironic because reporters (and even journalists) are the most irreverent public servants of all. There’s nothing reporters (and editors) won’t joke about, though Ms. Sadler’s remark was not intended as a joke, despite the early spin from the White House.
The point is that everyone is capable of saying things they shouldn’t, and if these things are within the confines of a familiar work place — or supper table — no harm is done. It’s when the remark goes public that the damage is cruel and inflicts pain.
The villain at the White House is the man or woman who couldn’t wait to leak it to someone who could send it “viral” to the world. The leak was not meant to wound John McCain, but to put a knife in the back of Donald Trump (and perhaps Ms. Sadler). The White House was right not to issue the apology demanded by the commentators big and small, unless the White House knew who the leaker might be. If so, the leaker should have been sacked, and in public.
Leakers are the bane of any government and any administration, liberal or conservative, and the affliction appears to be greater in this administration than most. This is largely because this administration is less experienced than most, and the newcomers have not yet seen the full measure of consequences for jerks and losers. Loyalty is a declining virtue in our age, not only at the White House but nearly everywhere.
Much of the hostile reaction to the remark, and to the publication of the remark, seems heartfelt. Joe Biden, the former vice president, seemed to speak for many Americans when he called Mr. McCain “a genuine hero.” He is a man of valor, the ex-veep said, “whose sacrifices for his country are immeasurable. As he fights for life, he deserves better — so much better.” Everyone, Democrat or Republican, Vegetarian or Whig, could agree with that. But good ol’ Joe couldn’t resist using the opportunity to throw a dart at the president. “Given this White House’s trail of disrespect toward John and others, this staffer is not the exception to the rule, but the epitome of it.” Was good ol’ Joe avenging Mr. McCain, or merely pleased to throw a rock at the White House?
If anybody is out of place defending an American veteran of the Vietnam War, it’s John Kerry. He chimed in when Jeff Flake, a McCain colleague in the Senate, said there were no words to describe his outrage at the sentiment of the “he’s dying” remark. “Actually, Jeff,” he said, “there are words — four-letter words.” My, my. Such eloquence.
John Kerry forfeited his right to defend men like Sen. McCain, who served his country at a time when millions of Americans, John Kerry foremost among them, were eager to call every American soldier (and aviator) a war criminal. Mr. Kerry came home from the Vietnam War to libel and slander every man he had gone to war with.
He told a hearing of the U.S. Senate a wicked tale of calumny, how the Americans in Vietnam had “personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.” It was all a lie, and he knew it.
There are villains aplenty in Washington, and throwing rocks at villains is great fun. But we ought to take careful aim before we let fly.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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