OK, nobody is going to remove the current name from the Russell Senate Office Building and rename it after a presidential assassin. But now that I have your attention, think of where we have arrived in our nation's history:
The building is currently named for Sen. Richard B. Russell Jr. (D-Georgia), a leading opponent of civil rights for decades. Now Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) wants to rename it for Sen. John McCain (D-Arizona).
This proposed honor comes during a week of endless praise for McCain. Even I, no admirer of McCain, would have to admit that his name would be less offensive on that building than the name of a diehard segregationist like Russell. But McCain's record is not unblemished. He did oppose a holiday for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And his horrific experience in captivity led him to use racist language about the Vietnamese, studied at length in a book by Irwin Tang called Gook: John McCain's Racism and Why it Matters.
That was the war we remember him for, but McCain never saw a war he didn't like: wars that had happened, wars that were about to happen, and an imagined war that he sang about. In 2007, in the fledgling stages of his 2008 presidential campaign, someone asked McCain about military action in Iran. In response, he briefly sang his version of a parody of the song, "Barbara Ann." It went like this: "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran."
In Vietnam, we all know the suffering he endured after his A-4 Skyhawk was shot down in 1967. But it's useful to recall that he hadn't been dropping leaflets on Hanoi. He was there to bomb a thermal power plant right in the center of the city, which may have accounted for the rude reception he received when he splashed down in a center-city lake.
There's a lot to dislike about McCain, though you'd never know it this week. The often-cited redemptive moment came during his 2008 presidential campaign against Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. In one campaign appearance, McCain pushed back against a woman who called Obama "an Arab." No, McCain said, he's a decent family man and a citizen. (If you are of Arab extraction, you might have wondered whether McCain's denial that Obama was an Arab was also a backhanded way of saying that Arabs can't be decent family men and citizens.)
McCain's career is a series of contradictions and paradoxes, ups and downs: from his time as a near-the-bottom-of-his-class midshipman at the Naval Academy, to his constant warmongering, to his criticizing the current "president," while voting with him more than 80 percent of the time. Here's an article that delves into those paradoxes and ups and downs.
To get back to the Russell Building, I'd have to admit that we could do a lot worse than naming it for McCain. The worst choice might be Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-Mississippi), a shameless racist who vigorously opposed anti-lynching laws, worked hard to keep African-Americans from voting in the District of Columbia, and admired the Nazis. Yes, his name would really stain that building. So, of course, would Lee Harvey Oswald's. But no senator has proposed that.
First in my class in Officer Candidate School. Late to the conclusion that our attitude toward the military is idolatrous.