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Rhetorical Recap: Meghan McCain's Eulogy for Her Father

It must fall to commentators more steeped than I am in Greek and Shakespearean tragedy to draw out the classical contours of an occasion where the first daughter, marooned in political exile, wept in fury while the first daughter in power sat in the audience. (Was Ivanka Trump texting during the service? The video clip is not dispositive. However, the social media arguments over this point attest in perfect miniature to the current state of our politics.)

As Meghan McCain reached the microphone she took an audible breath, opened her file folder, and charged into her speech. She came out indignant and remained so even when her text called for wry humor, warm remembrance, or inspired communion with the assembled. And while her phrasing and word choices didn’t always scan smoothly, there was no mistaking the object of her obloquy:

“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 live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.”

The highlight of the eulogy was a remembrance in which young Meghan, at her father’s insistence, got back on a horse that had thrown her. The pain of a broken collarbone and the resentment at her father’s directive befit her chosen tone. And she transitioned terrifically into how that life lesson was internalized and carried her forward into the present moment. “Show them how tough you are,” John S. McCain III had told her, in anticipation of this oration.

Thus primed in advance and self-cued in performance for a verbal gallop out of the Arizona frontier into the American future by way of the National Cathedral, Meghan McCain gave it a great go, eyes ablaze, voice strong, tears sporadically quelled:

“My father, the true son of his father and grandfather, was born into an enduring sense of the hard-won character of American greatness and was convinced of the need to defend it with ferocity and faith.”

Her father was, in tandem with Mark Salter, a prolific and accomplished author, and I was surprised she did not mention that when reciting his multiple accomplishments. One of their best collaborations was the autobiographical Faith of My Fathers, with its allusion to the Catholic hymn “Faith of Our Fathers.”

“John McCain was born in a distant and now vanquished outpost of American power and he understood America as a sacred trust.”

The outpost was the Panama Canal Zone; the modifier “vanquished” echoes Ronald Reagan and his fellow conservatives’ strenuous and effective opposition to the 1977 treaties that dissolved US control over the area, effectively extinguishing the Zone while professing a permanent right to defend the canal inside it from threats to its continued neutral service to ships of all nations. “Sacred trust,” of course, sustains the blend of patriotic and religious duty.

“He understood our republic demands responsibilities even before it defends its rights. He knew navigating the line between good and evil was often difficult, but always simple. He grasped that our purpose and our meaning was rooted in a missionary’s responsibility stretching back centuries….

“The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold. She is resourceful and confident and secure. She meets her responsibilities, she speaks quietly because she is strong. America does not boast because she has no need to.”

With the drop of a single word or two, McCain could have tied her recitation of American values to three blazing issues dividing her father and Donald Trump: immigration, the system of international alliances embedding the US—including NATO, whose Brussels headquarters building may soon be named after the deceased—and torture. But nary a reference.

“The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”

Boom. McCain had said the word “great” fifteen times leading up to that punchline. The only word she invoked as many times was “love.” Sure enough, the president punched back his slogan on Twitter.

As she concluded McCain plunged into deep grief. She elaborated in a throbbing voice on a quotation from Thucydides’s version of Pericles’s funeral oration: the image of great men is woven into the stuff of other mens’ lives. Hers, too, as both the horse story and her telling of it demonstrated.

McCain paid tribute to her father mainly as an American warrior, not a politician or elected official. But a politician (and writer) he was as well, and it is worth musing on whether one of Meghan McCain’s next rides will take place in the political sphere. She is a young wealthy well-connected media star with a family legacy that surely presses down upon her as the admirals did upon her father, which she noted.

Through an online search I have detected but a few calls for her to succeed her father and get a two-plus year start on winning his Senate seat outright. Nor could I ascertain whether Meghan McCain has a signature cause to which she has pledged her efforts and which she would advance as a legislator. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, reliant as he must be upon Trump supporters to win re-election weeks from now in a tight contest, has little incentive to name her to the seat. So a Meghan McCain race may not happen anytime soon.

Still, should she ever decide to head thataway, her eulogy will serve her well as a highlight in her campaign biography.

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