A tale of two Republicans
President Trump experienced Sen. John McCain's withering disapproval during their shared time in Washington D.C. but he certainly wasn't alone.
Congressman Steve King supported McCain during campaign stops in Iowa, but it's safe to say any alliance faded over time. King and the 2008 GOP presidential nominee from Arizona didn't agree about border and immigration policies. McCain ultimately returned to the Senate.
"Maybe three or four years ago or so — maybe five — I was at an event that had House and Senate members there," King told us on the Wednesday before Labor Day. "Out in the hallway there was coffee and cookies. I stepped out there. John McCain was there and not really anybody else. We know each other pretty well, but I noticed that, when I'd walk over toward him, he'd kind of take a shift around to the other side of the table."
King told us he was reading McCain's body language and the message was: "I don't want to talk to this guy." The Congressman approached him anyway. King said McCain was reluctant to shake his hand.
"We've had disagreements," King remembers McCain telling him.
"Yes, senator, but you are an authentic American hero and I respect that," King said in his recap of the conversation to us. "He shook my hand, smiled, we chatted and after that, whenever we would cross paths along the way, he would go out of his way to come over and say 'hi.' … It doesn't mean I needed to agree with him on every position that he took. I'm really sure he didn't agree with me because they tell me that I made his book."
In McCain's memoir "The Restless Wave," the senator calls King a "backbench House Republican" from Iowa who "seems to go out of his way to offend as many people as he can with his crude insults of folks who came to this country for freedom and opportunity."
"That's OK," King said. "I still respect John McCain."
It's a shame our president didn't have the same perspective about 48 hours earlier when he was playing games with his flag pole at the White House. But, heaven forbid, there were scores to be settled.
One of the signature votes in McCain's legacy will be the thumbs down he gave the president's efforts to repeal President Obama's health care law. McCain also slammed the current president's Helsinki meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory."
Trump was petulant at photo sessions when asked for comment about the senator's death. His official comments were terse and while flags around the Capitol remained at half-staff, the flag over the White House spent far too much time at full-staff.
"I didn't follow the White House lead on that," King said.
There's been an awful lot of score-settling since our president took office in 2017. To be fair, Trump and the national press corp feed off each other. As I follow the developments of this administration, I take a "what did he do now?" and "what are they on his case about now?" approach. It's petty. Both sides. So I see a lot of grey when others try to make a controversy black and white.
But for me, there is no grey area with the half-staff, full-staff, half-staff again nonsense on the last Monday of August. Nonsense is too kind a word. What a bull leaves behind is a better word.
A few kind words and a presidential order were all the president needed at the end of that melancholy weekend. A moment for a guy who was in a prison camp for more than five years. For a guy who served his state for six terms in the senate. It truly was the easiest decision of this presidency.
King was diplomatic about the White House flag decision as he made his way to Okoboji for a political event a week ago.
"I don't think it's constructive to dig into that," King said. "The president has his reasons, I presume. I don't think he's articulated what they are. I'll just say: The smoother we can leave this and the less we ruffle the feathers along the way, the smoother it's going to be in saying good-bye to John McCain. I'd like to leave this time to honor his life, rather than maybe contributing to disagreements in the country about how we do it."
All due respect to the congressman, but there are times to set aside the diplomacy — and I don't know what's worse: The fact that President Trump acted like a self-indulgent man-child on the Monday after McCain's passing, or the fact that he caved and brought the flag back down after the uproar.
I mean, if you're going to be that guy, at least commit to it.