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It was no surprise that Donald Trump departed from protocol, common decency and most of his political party in paying such half-hearted tribute to John McCain.

The pro forma expression of sympathy for Mr. McCain’s family that issued from the Presidential Twitter account on Saturday mentioned none of the veteran U.S. senator’s legislative achievements or his heroic military service. The tweet was short, even for a tweet.

The casket bearing the body of John McCain was carried into the Arizona State Capitol earlier Wednesday.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

But then what more could be expected from a President who found the political virtues of Arizona’s old lion so alien? It was Mr. Trump, remember, who pioneered the absurd charge that Mr. McCain was less of a war hero for having been captured in Vietnam.

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While the rest of the GOP mourns, it should take heed of the contrast between its current leader and the leader it has just lost. John McCain, who died Saturday at age 81 and will be buried this Sunday, represented what was best about the Republicans. Mr. Trump will never recognize that, but the party still could.

It’s true that Mr. McCain’s ideological heterodoxies made him a controversial figure on the right. He often held the mantle of the Democrats’ favourite Republican for his stances against torture (which he underwent at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”), George W. Bush’s tax cuts and the repeal of Obamacare.

But the gifts he brought to Congress went beyond his policy positions, which Democrats often didn’t like and were indeed sometimes disastrously wrong, such as his dogged support for the Iraq War.

Rather, it was his approach to politics – his rejection of cynicism, his straightforward love of country and his refusal to think along tribal lines – that made him a beacon.

In a hyper-partisan era, Mr. McCain reached across the aisle to work with liberal Democrats when their views of the public good aligned. He collaborated with Edward Kennedy on a failed push for immigration reform, and with Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold he forged a near-miraculous overhaul of campaign finance law that stood from 2002 until the Supreme Court gutted it in 2010.

While running unsuccessfully for president against Barack Obama, meanwhile, he never pandered to the racists in his base. At one town hall, he was booed for telling a supporter that an Obama presidency was nothing to be “scared” of, and corrected a woman who said she believed the Democratic challenger was an “Arab.”

Yes, it was a terrible mistake to choose Sarah Palin as his running mate. She brought proud ignorance and white grievance politics into the mainstream of the party like never before. There is a plausible timeline of the Republican Party’s descent into Trumpism that begins with her presence on the 2008 ticket.

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But he was a politician and played to win. The popular idea of Mr. McCain as a “maverick” with no regard for his political skin was always overplayed. On most issues, he was a conventional Republican, sometimes out of conviction, as with his hawkish line on foreign affairs after 9/11, and sometimes out of convenience (look at his support for Mr. Trump’s tax reform bill).

Some on the left have been dancing on the Senator’s grave as a result, and accusing his apologists of being duped by a man whose legend was burnished by a friendly press corps. There is some justice to what they say, especially about the low bar liberals often set for Mr. McCain. It’s odd, for example, that a politician should receive so much credit for affirming the established facts about Mr. Obama’s ancestry.

Then again, hasn’t the Donald Trump experience taught Americans to be grateful for the small decencies and basic humanity of a John McCain? The days when he made a habit of vaulting over those low bars certainly feel like a long time ago.

The fact that the United States has a fractious political right can’t be wished away. Rather, it needs leaders to steer it away from bedlam. Those leaders are not going to be social democrats. That Mr. McCain managed to be a good party man and thoroughgoing conservative, while maintaining an independent mind and an iron conscience, makes him a useful model, not a hypocrite.

There will always be Republicans. They might as well be like John McCain.

After a day of ignoring questions about the death of John McCain, U.S. President Donald Trump speaks up at a gathering of evangelical leaders in the White House. Reuters
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