Two of the the country's most prominent Republicans gave serious, eloquent speeches this week. The man who never shuts up, President Trump, was not one of them. Instead, he was the thinly veiled target of both.
On Monday, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, delivered a tough rebuke to a president who has coddled dictators, insulted allies and infected American foreign policy with xenophobia and a backward-looking anti-globalism.
"To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain 'the last best hope of Earth' for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history," McCain said in his speech at the 2017 Liberty Medal Ceremony. "We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil."
The senator made no mention of the president, but, when asked by a reporter what he thought of McCain's remarks, Trump responded like one of Tony Soprano's henchmen. "I'm being very, very nice," Trump said, "but at some point I fight back and it won't be pretty."
Then, on Thursday in New York, the most recent two-term Republican president, George W. Bush, went even further to shake the pillars of Trumpism. He, too, refrained from naming the man in the White House, yet key passages of the speech were widely interpreted as condemnations of the Trump political phenomenon. Among them were these:
• "Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication."
• "We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgetting the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism."
• "America is experiencing the sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country's divisions. According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other."
• "Our identity as a nation – unlike many other nations – is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood.… This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed."
A Bush spokesman claimed the former president was not implicitly talking about the current president, but anti-Trump Republicans were all over cable news insisting that Bush had decided it was finally time to come out of silent retirement to confront Trump's boorish, divisive reign.
So far, Trump has not issued any thuggish comments threatening Bush. Perhaps he's been too busy perpetuating the feud over statements he made about the nation's war dead.
Monday, he made the spurious claim that Barack Obama and other past presidents had failed to make condolence calls to grieving military families, even as he boasted about how well he himself handled such calls. Subsequently, he received criticism for telling the widow of a soldier recently killed in Niger that her husband "knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt."
Rather than acting like a gracious leader and explaining that his remarks may have been less than artful, Trump went into his defensive, gangster mode. He denied making any such statement and went on a tirade against Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat who had listened in on the call with the very upset mother of the fallen serviceman and made it public. Thursday night, he was still sending out angry tweets on the subject.
Earlier in the day, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly had addressed the controversy, making it obvious he had coached Trump on what to say in the phone call. Trump simply bungled the message. That sort of thing happens, especially to someone as inarticulate as Trump. But he always reflexively jabs back rather than admitting he might have done something poorly.
Trump would do well to stop picking fights, stop pulling bogus factoids out of thin air and stop building policy on the last wild idea to lodge in his brain after tuning in to "Infowars." His lazy mind and loose tongue are his own worst enemies, not John McCain or any Gold Star mother. The fact that, by comparison to Trump, a man of modest communication skills like George W. Bush sounds eloquent and wise is evidence of how much trouble we are in.
The critiques delivered by Bush and McCain were right on target, but they should have been bold enough to name the man who sits at the pinnacle of the problem.