We are cursed, as the Chinese say, to live in "interesting times", about which there is much to say - the Iran deal, for example, or the Allaku Akbar guy running amok in Chattanooga. Yet the dead sloth that is the Republican Party has finally roused itself to spend the last 48 hours hammering Donald Trump for impugning the honor of John McCain.
As his criminal-immigrant surge demonstrates, Trump's support comes almost entirely from Americans who feel the political class passes its time talking about nothing that matters to them. So feel free to spend the weekend talking about John McCain. QED, as Trump is unlikely to say.
On the matter of McCain, in June 1998 the Senator stood up to address a Republican fundraising meeting: "You think that was a tasteless joke?" he began, referring to the previous speaker's closing Viagra gag. "Listen to this one." He then told the following side-splitter:
"Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?
"Because her real father's Janet Reno."
Rimshot. In just twelve words, Senator McCain insulted not the President himself but the three women closest to him (officially, that is): he said the kid's a dog, the First Lady's an adulterous lesbian, and the Attorney-General's an unconvincing transvestite.
Is this as bad as mocking a guy's 40-year-old military service? Well, it's certainly ungallant. From the perspective of 2015, I have no respect whatsoever for any of the trio, but I would not mock their looks, orientation or alleged possession of male genitalia. At the time young Chelsea had just turned 18. Is it more disreputable for a grown man to insult in public a rich, powerful senator's war record than a teenage girl's looks? Whatever the answer, a chap who's done the latter has no business complaining about the former.
Back in '98, the real punchline to McCain's joke came in the deafening silence of the American media: like a genteel dowager on the 'bus trying to avoid catching the eye of the gibbering derelict, the press decided not to notice. In The New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote a piece alluding to it, but without repeating the joke, which rendered her column entirely incomprehensible to anybody but Beltway insiders. The only reason I know the joke happened is because some guy called Steyn wrote about it in a foreign publication and rose to young Chelsea's defense. As I put it all those years ago, "Personally, I find Chelsea rather fetching in a coltish sort of way" - and Page Six of The New York Post excitedly reported this breaking news under the headline "Fetching Filly". It's an odd sort of war hero who picks on little girls.
The media blackout of 1998 is in striking contrast to the wall-to-wall coverage of Trump's "gaffe". Two decades back, the media loved McCain because he was their kind of Republican: that's to say, he spent more time attacking other Republicans than he ever did Democrats. And they wanted him to keep on doing that, so they closed ranks around him. Whereas no one wants what Trump wants to talk about to be part of the 2016 election conversation, so anything must be seized on to disqualify him from participation. And, if nothing else is to hand, a sneer at John McCain will have to do.
The thing is McCain's Chelsea Clinton gag is not untypical. Anyone who's "worked with Senator McCain" in the Senate these last gazillion years knows he has a short fuse. In late 1999, attacking as is his wont his fellow Republican, he told Senate budget committee chairman Pete Domenici that "only an asshole would put together a budget like this". Domenici rose to his feet and said, with wounded dignity, that in all his years in the Senate no one had ever called him that.
"I wouldn't call you an asshole unless you really were an asshole," said McCain.
Hmm. If this were a Jackie Collins novel, you'd be beginning to suspect that McCain and Trump were twins separated at birth: two men who disagree on everything else but are united in their belief that every other prominent Republican is an asshole.
McCain was projecting with respect to poor old Pete Domenici. Forty years ago, John McCain was a war hero. Since then he's mostly been an asshole. The problem is you can't out-asshole Donald Trump. McCain is in the Superbowl of assholery and hopelessly outmatched. He was doing assholery-as-usual last week, sneering at Trump's supporters as "the crazies". On recent polls that's getting on for 20 per cent of the Republican vote. If 20 per cent of Republican "crazies" take the same umbrage at McCain's sneer that Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Reince Preibus et al have taken on McCain's behalf at Trump's, then Hillary will be President with a Democratic Senate and maybe even House.
And yet no Republican "leader" objected to McCain's characterization of the base. Only Donald Trump did, and in doing so flung the crazy back in McCain's face. And all those hitherto somnolent Republican "leaders" stood on their dignity to insist that there was no place in their party for people who disrespect John McCain... no, make that all POWs... no, make that all veterans. McCain himself insisted that Trump didn't owe an apology to him but to all those who've served in the armed forces. So now John McCain is the personal embodiment of the entire US military? Trump didn't insult any of them, he insulted you, and you alone. I dislike the idea of protected classes of persons, and find the notion that John McCain is apparently the Caitlyn Jenner of the right not only faintly risible but, in terms of crude political advantage, unlikely to be as effective.
Trump's right: This country treats its veterans appallingly, far worse than most other civilized societies, consigning far too many to food stamps and entrapping them in a third-class health-care system. A New Hampshire neighbor of mine, a Vietnam vet exposed to Agent Orange and thus given cancer as a war-losing bonus, just received the usual letter from the VA telling him his benefits were being cut. Oddly enough, he loathes McCain and is gung-ho for Trump. Do you want to bet he's in a minority down at the Legion? John McCain doesn't embody the grand variety and diversity of America's warriors; John McCain embodies John McCain: That's it. So, when the Republican establishment spends two news cycles huffing about the amour propre of a wealthy career politician, they're only reinforcing Trump's critique: that the GOP is a party of "losers" and "failures" obsessed with peripheral trivia nobody else cares about, while ignoring everything that's killing your future.
Finally, re that "asshole" business, I should add that I don't mean it as a criticism. Personally, I'd like it if Calvin Coolidge were on the ticket, or indeed the Marquess of Salisbury. But they've decided to sit out Campaign 2016, so one must take what one can get. And a citizenry that votes for an asshole is less deluded than one that votes for a messiah. Thus, voting for, say, Silvio Berlusconi (a kind of wealthier mini-Trump, and yet the third longest serving prime minister in Italian history, after Mussolini and Giolitti) is less psychologically unhealthy than voting for Barack Obama. And, come to that, less damaging to republican virtue than voting for the previous guy's wife or brother.
Still, we are speaking about degrees of assholery here. I can't quite honestly imagine how big an asshole I'd have to be to tell that Chelsea Clinton joke into a live microphone, as John McCain did. But if "there's a place in our party" for such a man, there's certainly no reason why there shouldn't also be a place for Donald Trump.
So maybe now the Republican bigshots could drop the queeny hysteria and begin talking about something - anything - that matters?