The finest of the funerary orations for John McCain at the National Cathedral on Saturday was by Henry Kissinger, and the least satisfactory was by Barack Obama. Barack Obama’s was the least satisfactory because, over the years, he has become ever more fixated on himself and his standing in the world, instead of on what ought to be his theme for public discussion, which is the United States and her own standing in the world. Obama has become fixated on himself, I believe, out of a loss of self-confidence—out of a recognition that he has failed to do what his talents ought to have allowed him to do. The first sign of this was his State of the Union address during his final year in office, in 2016, when he saw fit to acknowledge that he had failed to achieve in his presidency anything equivalent to what had been achieved by Abraham Lincoln or by Franklin Roosevelt—an oddly self-deprecating speech, which was also on the mark. And why did Obama fail to achieve at the level of those other presidents? It wasn’t merely circumstances. It was because he had lost sight of America and her grandeurs, which are, in any case, the only proper theme for a State of the Union address.
Obama’s funerary oration for McCain dwelt on how surprising and interesting it was that McCain had asked him to speak, in spite of the personal tensions that had come out of the 2008 election. But it was neither surprising nor interesting that McCain had invited him. McCain was a hero who knew that he was a hero, and he wished to have presidents preside over his funeral. Obama should have spoken as the retired and honored leader of America, and not as someone who had fought with McCain in an election. But it was Obama the politician who spoke.
Kissinger’s oration was magnificent because, unlike Obama, he gazed at himself not at all. He made a single point, instead, which had to do precisely with America and her grandeurs. His opening words declared: “Our country has had the good fortune that at times of national trial a few great personalities have emerged to remind us of our essential unity and inspire us to fulfill our sustaining values. John McCain was one of those gifts of destiny.”
Kissinger was thinking of the Vietnam War. But he was entirely aware that, in September 2018, a time of national trial is again at hand, not because of a major war or any other crisis in world affairs, and not because of an economic crisis, but because of the crisis in the political culture that had led to a national funeral addressed by presidents, but not by the sitting president. The hero who had arisen to remind us of our unity and inspire us to fulfill our values was John McCain. And those opening words from Kissinger dealt a far more terrible blow to the sitting president than anything said by Meaghan McCain or by Obama, who were regarded by the journalists as having offered sharp condemnations.
Kissinger conjured McCain’s heroism by recounting a simple story of his own decision, as Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, not to do anything special in favor of McCain, during the period when McCain was in captivity in North Vietnam—not to accept a North Vietnamese offer, intended as a gesture to McCain’s father, the commander of the American navy in the Pacific, to release McCain ahead of the other American prisoners. And Kissinger recounted McCain’s statement to him, when they finally met. McCain thanked Kissinger for saving his honor. In his funerary oration, Kissinger responded:
Honor was John’s lodestar. It is an intangible quality. It is not obligatory. It has no written code. It reflects an inward compulsion, free of self-interest. It fulfills a cause, not a personal ambition. It represents what a society lives for beyond the necessities of the moment. Law makes life possible; honor ennobles it. For John, it was a way of life.
I am not in general an admirer of Kissinger and his own place in American history—I am, on the contrary, an extreme critic and detractor. But I see why he occupies the position that he does in American life. He is a serious man. He is not a man to waste your time, or his. He is a man who goes to the heart of things. At the National Cathedral, he delivered one of the great orations of American history—the kind of oration, anyway, that schoolchildren in the 19th century used to commit to memory. It was Kissinger, and not anyone else, who went to the heart of John McCain’s place in the American past and in the crisis of our own moment. And, like anyone who goes to the heart of things, his rhetoric slipped gracefully into the present tense (“it is an intangible, it is not obligatory”), where eternity, which is the true heart of things, resides. There is a power that comes from being able to go to the heart of things. Kissinger has been a man of power since the 1950s, not just because of his connections to powerful politicians. Today he no longer has the physical strength to climb the steps to the lectern, without the help of the church minister on one side of him and a personal assistant on the other. And yet, when the lectern was at last in front of him and he began to speak, everyone could see that, even now, or perhaps now more than ever, power is at Henry Kissinger’s command.
To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural criticism for Tablet, click here.