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Americans must learn to accept apologies again

Sen. John McCain speaks to reporters last April

Sen. John McCain speaks to reporters last April after a closed briefing the Capitol in Washington. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Nicholas Kamm

Among Jack Ziegler’s classic New Yorker cartoons is a particular favorite: A businessman in a suit and tie sits alone at a bar with a highball before him. He stares straight ahead, blank-eyed; a folded newspaper beside him, unread. A barman leans across the bar, listening, his own unopened paper at an elbow.

“I miss the Commies,” the man with the drink says.

The cartoon, to those who appreciate it, is of course wickedly funny — wicked in making light of a system that enslaved billions, and funny in that we know exactly what the man means. There’s something reassuring about having a common enemy. It gives us something to hate together — and faraway.

There are regimes to despise today, to be sure, but it’s just not the same. The “Commies” unified us in a way in that Iran, North Korea and Vladimir Putin’s Russia have been unable to, despite solid efforts.

Absent a common enemy, we seem to be turning on one another instead, as if we instinctively need something or someone to rail against. Everyday, practically, some public figure or other says something truly vicious in the news media — and then we argue about what was said on TV and in social media streams for a day or two, offending one another all the way down the line. Often it starts with the president, which is deeply unfortunate.

On Thursday, it was retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney who disgraced himself. The otherwise honorable general falsely suggested on Fox Business News that Sen. John McCain gave up military information while being tortured as a prisoner in what was then North Vietnam, referring to him as “songbird John.”

McCain, who is suffering from incurable brain cancer, did nothing of the sort. Indeed, he refused early release from a Hanoi prison cell because it broke with the “first-in-first-out” American military code, and he attempted suicide as a prisoner to avoid signing a meaningless propaganda statement.

“Despairing of any relief from pain and further torture, and fearing the close approach of my moment of dishonor, I tried to take my life,” he would later write.

On the same day as McInerney’s cruel remark, it was reported that White House aide Kelly Sadler quipped, in a private meeting it should be noted, that McCain’s opposition to CIA director nominee Gina Haspel is irrelevant because, McCain’s “dying anyway.”

Sadler reached out to the McCain Family to apologize, and a rattled Fox Business host Charles Payne went back on air to apologize for not having pushed back on McInerney. He also explained himself on Twitter:

“This morning on a show I was hosting, a guest made a very false and derogatory remark about Senator John McCain. At the time, I had the control room in my ear telling me to wrap the segment, and did not hear the comment. I regret I did not catch this remark, as it should have been challenged. As a proud military veteran and son of a Vietnam Vet these words neither reflect my or the network’s feelings about Senator McCain, or his remarkable service and sacrifice to this country.”

In other words, Sadler and Payne did the right thing (unlike McInerney), and we mustn’t dismiss that. When genuine contrition is offered, it has to be accepted, so we can move on as a people — so can we acknowledge that our common values have been breached and healed.

That’s no longer the case in this unforgiving new political environment. Sadler and Payne continue to be attacked. A former McCain campaign manager is insisting on Payne’s firing, calling Payne’s apology “not good enough.” Others are demanding Sadler’s dismissal. There is never resolution, just more hatred and consternation.

There’s one American who surely doesn’t miss “the Commies,” and that’s Sen. John McCain. But he long-ago found a way to forgive them, demonstrating a graciousness America desperately needs to revive.

William F.B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.