Commentary / Japan

Paying tribute to a man of American dignity

by Kuni Miyake

On Saturday, Sen. John Sidney McCain III passed away. U.S. mainstream media, whether liberal or conservative, carried feature articles or broadcast special programs over the weekend to pay tribute to this great American statesman from Arizona. McCain was always original and unusual in many ways.

The news coverage in Tokyo was not as extensive as in the United States. Japanese media reported “John McCain, a heavyweight but straight-talking maverick senator from the ruling Republican Party, didn’t hesitate to criticize Donald Trump, the U.S. president of his own party.” Naturally, for most Japanese, John McCain was not always a hero.

Having said that, there are many people in Tokyo who remember McCain as a special friend of Japan. I am one of them. My heart was broken when I learned of his passing, because I was probably one of a few Japanese who had the honor to chat with him, almost one on one, during his last visit to Tokyo five years ago.

It was around noon Aug. 21, 2013, when I was invited to have lunch with McCain at a restaurant in Tokyo. A friend of mine, who happened to have been his congressional aide, was kind enough to ask me whether I wished to dine with the senator. I could not resist the offer, but why he picked me is still a mystery.

Then came the McCain delegation of a dozen. Although the two of us were surrounded by his assistants and U.S. diplomats in Tokyo, it was almost a one-on-one meeting since no one dared to say a word except the senator and myself. He asked me to tell him what was going on politically in and around Japan and East Asia.

I explained why I thought Shinzo Abe won the parliamentary election the year before as well as why Chinese vessels were buzzing around the Senkaku Islands. I also told him that the Japanese government was reorganizing its national security decision-making as well as working hard to relocate the Futenma air base to the Henoko area of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture.

I was deeply impressed by McCain who, contrary to my expectations, was a great listener with deep knowledge and experience. His questions were to the point and his comments were insightful. We talked for almost an hour before he left for a meeting with the prime minister. Probably they had wanted me to give him an independent briefing.

During the luncheon I felt that he was a man of civility, decency, dignity and integrity, representing the elites or “bright side” of the U.S. Before he left the restaurant, he told me, “I enjoyed the conversation and next time in D.C., please visit me.” Of course, I never even tried, but such a charming character he was.

After the news of his death, I started collecting the words of tribute to the late senator. What I like best was those by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who wrote: “We have lost a man who steadfastly represented the best ideals of our country. He always put service to the nation before self.”

Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, said: “Sen. John McCain was a patriot, and an extraordinary American war hero.” Former Secretary of State John Kerry, a Democrat, stated, “God bless John McCain — a brave man showing us once again what the words grace and grit really mean.” Other Democrats echoed these sentiments.

Hillary Clinton tweeted, “He frequently put partisanship aside to do what he thought was best for the country and was never afraid to break the mold if it was the right thing to do.” Bernie Sanders said, “John McCain was an American hero, a man of decency and honor and a friend of mine.” Barack Obama made similar remarks on McCain.

Was all of this lip service? Hardly. McCain was loved and respected by almost everybody, including myself. Yet, seen from Tokyo, the way the Americans extoll him goes beyond just paying tribute, as if they wanted to remind themselves of the virtues and values they are losing in the nation’s capital.

Here is what Donald Trump said, who was first silent after McCain’s passing and eventually just issued a tweet. “My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!” Is that all you can say about McCain? McCain would not have behaved like this.

Trump once claimed that McCain wasn’t a war hero because he was captured and tortured in Vietnam. He even said, “I like people who weren’t captured” in July 2015. As compared to the previous tributes, Trump’s was intolerant and illiberal. I felt as if the U.S. were losing something which made America great.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “John never sacrificed his integrity or honor — or the interests of America — for personal or political gain. He truly understood what it meant to put America first, and he did it throughout his life.” If he is right about McCain, his passing is not just the death of a great senator in the U.S.

It could be a symptom of the erosion of American dignity, which was once dominant in the U.S. political arena. The potential consequence would be very serious and even damaging not only for the U.S. but also for America’s friends and allies.

If a patriotic soldier who survived years of tortured captivity is no hero, who will fight for the nation? If John McCain’s civility, decency, dignity or integrity are ridiculed, how could you make America great again? Mr. Trump, all you must do now is to pay tribute, as others do, to every patriotic U.S. citizen such as John McCain.

As Tom Friedman said, if Trump stays in power for eight straight years, he will be destroying the United States of America, the civility, decency, dignity, integrity or principles that people like John McCain have represented for more than two centuries. Rome was not built in a day, but it could be ruined overnight.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies.