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Ernst and McCain

U.S. Sens. John McCain, left, and Joni Ernst speak to a packed cafe about veterans and voter turnout during a campaign stop in 2014 in West Burlington, Iowa. 

A White House staffer's comment about John McCain is a non-issue. Or, rather, it would be if the country wasn't wrapped in constant tumult and a 24-hour television news cycle.

Democrats are calling for Trump administration communications aide Kelly Sadler's job after she quipped, in a closed door meeting that Arizona's venerable U.S. Senator is "dying anyway," according to multiple sources. This past week, the national media spent four days harping on the leaked quote. 

McCain has been a constant thorn in the White House's side. This past year, he was a key "no" vote that salvaged the the Affordable Care Act, unlovingly dubbed "Obamacare" by GOP detractors. President Donald Trump, too, has taken a fair share of nasty shots at the former POW.

But it was McCain's opposition to Trump's CIA nominee Gina Haspel, who oversaw torture programs after 9/11 and destroyed evidence of their existence, that incited the latest row.

McCain is widely considered Congress' moral authority on torture. He spent years on the receiving end. And his opinion carries bipartisan weight, posing a legitimate threat to Haspel's nomination.

Sadler's so-called joke, referring to McCain's brain cancer diagnosis, is, indeed crass. Many a television pundit has opined that it's evidence of just how nasty U.S. politics have become in the Trump Age.

They're wrong.

McCain is probably dying. His friends are openly discussing his funeral — to which Trump is apparently not invited. His family, too, has admitted that his prognosis isn't good. And, when McCain ultimately succumbs to the disease, a titanic figure will leave the Senate. 

McCain's demise is, in a very real sense, a significant pending political event, which will reshape Washington in a meaningful way. And private comments such as Sadler's are not only common, if insensitive. They're justifiable.

Both sides of the political spectrum are closely watching the health of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with the left actively willing her to live. And that's because the death of the 85-year-old justice would grant conservatives a massive opportunity to tip the balance of the court for a generation. Ginsburg knows this and touts her rigorous daily workout regimen. Justice Antonin Scalia's death in 2016, too, was a huge political event. Iowa's own U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley rewrote the ground rules for Senate confirmation and, with the seat vacant, offered conservatives a reason to rally around Trump despite their hesitations about him.

Mortality, perhaps the lone human universal, is, and always has been, a legitimate political prime mover. 

In this instance, the White House is correct to stick by Sadler. Her comments were made in private and never intended for print. But, at its core, the fact this is a story at all speaks to the completely cutthroat nature of the Trump White House. 

Sadler's comments aren't unique nor unwarranted. Quips such as these happen all the time because, frankly, they're true. Plus, gallows humor is widespread among those who work surrounded by illness and death everyday. Ask your physician, police officer or local undertaker how they cope. Often, a clinical disinterest proves the best strategy for one's mental health.

No doubt, Trump's less-than-respectful treatment of McCain plays a role in how this is perceived. And McCain's family has every right to be aghast at the coldness of Sadler's quote. But none of that makes Sadler's analysis less true. And the collective outrage on national television news was, at best, disingenuous. 

The wall-to-wall coverage did no one much good. It further bolstered conservatives' gripes that we're a people consumed by a need to be offended at all times. And the media's days-long treatment of a low-level staffers legitimate observation only fed the false narrative that the U.S. press corps is out to get Trump.

By all accounts, McCain is dying. Are we so soft that, now, even mortality is out of bounds?

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Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at


Editorial Page Editor

Editorial Page Editor, Quad-City Times