STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Who's really to blame for Trump aide's horrible McCain 'joke'

A few weeks ago, several political officials, and numerous journalists, j...

Posted: May 12, 2018 3:32 PM
Updated: May 12, 2018 3:32 PM

A few weeks ago, several political officials, and numerous journalists, jumped down the throat of comedian Michelle Wolf for making pointed remarks about the Trump administration at the White House Correspondents Dinner. The jokes, the critics said, were too harsh and further eroded "civility" in Washington. Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said that Wolf's jokes about Sanders were "uncalled for. It's nasty."

The past 24 hours have made it clear that Wolf really wasn't the problem. With some jarring events in recent days the nation got another taste of the kind of bitter rhetoric that has become normalized during Donald Trump's presidency, even between members of the same party.

On the heels of reports that Sen. John McCain, who is struggling against cancer, doesn't want the President to attend his funeral, and after news broke that the senator opposed the administration's pick for CIA director, White House aide Kelly Sadler joked to colleagues in an internal White House meeting: "he's dying anyway." There was no political commentary that was the basis of Sadler's remark and it sounded malicious.

President Trump and Sen. McCain have always had a tense relationship. During the 2016 campaign, Trump criticized McCain for having been captured during the Vietnam War. "I like people that weren't captured," Trump said. Indeed, this kind of rhetoric may well have been the reason that the senator seemed to take particular delight in making a late-hours appearance for the vote last July on the administration's failed legislation to repeal Obamacare ... and to give it a dramatic (and literal) thumbs down.

And the race to the bottom has accelerated quickly. In another unseemly -- jaw-dropping, even -- slam at McCain over his opposition to torture, on Thursday a military commentator on Fox Business Network, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, said: "The fact is, is John McCain -- it worked on John. That's why they call him 'Songbird John.'"

Certainly, the coarsening of our political discourse cannot be pinned on Donald Trump. For over three decades, the nation has watched as politicians have lowered and lowered the bar for what they are willing to say publicly about each other.

Few members of Congress were totally prepared for the moment when South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson shouted out "You Lie!" to President Barack Obama as he spoke to a joint session of Congress about his health care proposals in 2009. The vicious language that has been used as Democrats and Republicans have moved farther apart is well-cataloged; the airwaves and the internet are filled with endless examples of political opponents demonizing and dehumanizing each other.

It is President Trump who has given this kind of rhetoric his imprimatur -- in fact, in many instances demonstrating himself just how it's done.

Every presidency helps establish the standards and norms under which we conduct our democracy. While all presidents in recent decades have been willing to jump into the tough partisan fray, Trump has been exceptional in the kind of language that he has regularly used on opponents -- and in public. This is one of those cases when it is fair to use the term "unprecedented."

Unlike his predecessors, he never made any shift away from the fierce broadsides that he delivered on the campaign trail, and in many cases he has doubled down on the kinds of "unconventional" -- often personal -- attacks about politicians and policymakers (as well as reporters, celebrities and activists) who stood in his way. When it comes to throwing insults, President Trump has no equal.

He has helped to cement an unfortunate new normal-- a cultural change -- in Washington, which explains why an official such as Sadler might not think twice about these kinds of remarks. This is, after all, the political world we now live in.

Without a top political leader trying to push back on these trends -- as Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both insisted on doing -- there is no role model to remind us of our better political angels. Future presidents will feel that they can "go there," if they want, without political repercussion.

While it is true that rhetoric is only a small part of the story in our democracy (policy and politics have the greatest sway) the way in which we talk about each other plays a part in setting the tone for our democratic process. The Sadler joke was much worse than anything Michelle Wolf ever said because it was done by a White House official in an official meeting and underneath a President who has repeatedly made even more objectionable statements.

After the story blew up in news reports, Sadler called Meghan McCain, the senator's daughter, to apologize, a source close to the situation told CNN.

Sometimes a joke is just a joke, and we should appreciate the value of tough humor. But in other cases insults and barbed language reflect deeper dysfunctions in our political system. And if this does not concern you, it should.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 63444

Reported Deaths: 1804
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds5329110
DeSoto338727
Madison232460
Harrison222833
Rankin216830
Jackson206338
Jones180457
Forrest165353
Washington152433
Lauderdale135488
Lee127430
Neshoba123288
Lamar114613
Oktibbeha106036
Lowndes99932
Bolivar98732
Warren97630
Scott96219
Panola93611
Sunflower92623
Copiah92426
Lafayette88512
Leflore86660
Holmes85148
Pike84632
Grenada81621
Yazoo79311
Leake77125
Lincoln75641
Pontotoc7527
Wayne73621
Simpson72328
Monroe71650
Coahoma67710
Tate66524
Marion62519
Covington60112
Adams58725
Marshall5858
Winston58415
George5495
Union53814
Newton52611
Attala50224
Pearl River49637
Tallahatchie49610
Walthall46318
Chickasaw44319
Noxubee42611
Claiborne40113
Jasper3859
Smith38513
Calhoun3819
Clay37413
Alcorn3634
Prentiss3516
Hancock34414
Tishomingo3394
Itawamba31710
Tippah31612
Lawrence3155
Yalobusha31310
Clarke31025
Montgomery2973
Tunica2926
Humphreys27411
Carroll24811
Quitman2331
Greene23211
Kemper22715
Perry2267
Jefferson Davis2146
Amite2116
Webster20112
Jefferson1936
Wilkinson18813
Sharkey1831
Stone1593
Benton1300
Choctaw1294
Franklin1172
Issaquena211
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 91776

Reported Deaths: 1639
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson12039228
Mobile9170197
Montgomery6305147
Madison508227
Tuscaloosa398466
Baldwin326323
Shelby307532
Marshall298433
Unassigned281255
Lee251940
Morgan224315
Etowah195728
DeKalb171813
Elmore162637
Calhoun159012
Walker147464
Houston132712
Dallas129423
Russell12471
St. Clair123612
Limestone120813
Franklin120620
Cullman115711
Colbert110712
Lauderdale109512
Autauga103020
Escambia97915
Talladega92713
Jackson8704
Chambers82838
Tallapoosa82278
Dale78722
Butler75135
Blount7413
Chilton7226
Coffee7165
Covington71520
Pike6607
Barbour5635
Lowndes55824
Marion54724
Marengo52614
Clarke4879
Hale45726
Bullock44111
Winston43211
Perry4314
Wilcox4089
Monroe3954
Randolph39110
Bibb3813
Conecuh37210
Pickens3719
Sumter35918
Lawrence3240
Washington31412
Macon31113
Crenshaw2973
Choctaw27612
Cherokee2477
Henry2463
Greene24511
Geneva2420
Clay2235
Lamar2032
Fayette1765
Cleburne1211
Coosa922
Out of AL00
Tupelo
Broken Clouds
87° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 87°
Columbus
Few Clouds
86° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 91°
Oxford
Clear
84° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 84°
Starkville
Scattered Clouds
82° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 84°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather