As we prepare to say goodbye to another warm summer and the darkness looms, it has been an especially cruel season for Reagan conservatives. This is something to mourn, partly because winters—in political terms—can last for decades. As John McCain liked to misquote Mao, “It is always darkest just before it gets pitch black.”
Along those lines, some of our more poetic political observers have declared that McCain’s passing is a metaphor for the Republican Party, and I think they are at least half-right. At the risk of making things even more melancholy, I would argue that Charles Krauthammer’s death earlier this June, coupled with McCain’s, constitutes something of a double whammy. What used to be a thoughtful, courageous, and honorable brand of conservatism has metastasized into a more vulgar, populist, and anti-intellectual party. The cancer is spreading.
Though it apparently doesn’t warrant flying the White House flag at half-staff, we reserve a special honor for McCain’s life of sacrifice and action. On this, Krauthammer would agree: “McCain's is not the heroism of conquest or even rescue, but of endurance, and, even more important, endurance for principle,” Krauthammer wrote in 2000. “He suffered for our sins. He did not die for them, though he came very close.”
But while being in the arena matters, ideas have consequences, and words matter, too. As Krauthammer explained, “[Playwright] Tom Stoppard once said the reason he writes is because every once in a while you put a few words together in the right order and you're able to give the world a nudge. And sometimes I'm able to do that.” On this, McCain, who championed ideas like “serving a cause greater than your own self-interest,” would agree.
The man of action and the ideas advocate are simultaneously adversaries and allies. A political movement requires both. In this case, McCain and Krauthammer had much in common. Both were foreign policy hawks and Reaganites (Krauthammer having, like the Gipper, come over from the Democrats). Both enjoyed attending baseball games (McCain was a Diamondbacks fan while Krauthammer was a Nats fanatic). And, despite a self-awareness that often led to self-deprecation, both were more than happy to appear on television.
They also had a moral compass. McCain—in one of his most underrated displays of courage—cheered the surge in Iraq, even when giving up on the war might have made him more popular. And Krauthammer didn’t give up on McCain, even when other conservative intellectuals were jumping on the Obama bandwagon. That’s not to say they always agreed (see “torture”), but you almost always knew you were getting straight talk from both men. Speaking of courage, both men knew they were dying of cancer, yet took on their fate with dignity and elan.
Where do such men come from? McCain and Krauthammer endured prior trials that might have broken lesser men, only to later achieve greatness in another field. A diving accident paralyzed Krauthammer from the neck down; McCain’s injuries from beatings he endured as a P.O.W. prevented him from lifting his arms high enough to comb his own hair.
Lesser men might have given up, rested on their laurels, or allowed a disability to define their future. But these men were fighters and mavericks. A heroic pilot and prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, McCain reinvented himself as a politician, Republican presidential nominee, and, ultimately, a lion of the Senate. And Krauthammer was a highly successful psychiatrist before discovering his true calling as a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.
Both lived lives more interesting and honorable than that of Donald Trump, and possibly as a result, both men incurred Trump’s wrath. Everyone remembers that Trump famously suggested that McCain wasn’t a real hero because he had been captured, but Krauthammer and Trump also traded barbs, with Trump tweeting in 2015 that Krauthammer was an “overrated clown.” Of course, their animosity predated this presidential campaign. (In 2011, I asked Krauthammer about Trump having called him a “sad fool.” Krauthammer responded humorously, insisting that he was a “very happy guy.”)
As to whether McCain’s death really is a metaphor for the death of Ronald Reagan conservatism, Krauthammer would probably agree. Just last summer, as news of McCain’s illness spread, Krauthammer called McCain “the spirit of Reaganism,” saying he was “even more heroic than Reagan himself in his own life…” “I think there’s a kind of a symbolism in him being struck down in this sense by this illness,” Krauthammer continued. “I think it reflects that waning. And we are going to miss him because he is the one—I don’t want to give an obituary—but I’m just saying over time, if you think who would succeed McCain, I don’t think he has a successor.”
Likewise, this June, when it became clear that Krauthammer’s death was imminent, McCain tweeted “Cindy & I are praying for our dear friend Charles @krauthammer. A man of incredible intellect & character, Charles has graciously shared his wisdom & humor with countless loyal viewers & readers, myself included. I’m honored to call him my friend & wish him & his family peace.”
It’s not exactly the same as Jefferson and Adams dying on the July 4, 1826, but maybe it is akin to losing Reagan and Bill Buckley. Simply put, one would be hard-pressed to underestimate the significance or the vacuum left by this one-two punch to American politics. Like Reagan, McCain leaves us with an optimistic message about a hopeful future. Still, I wonder: Now that the boys of summer have gone, who among us can fill their shoes?