Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama led a final, public farewell to John McCain, praising the Arizona senator as the embodiment of America at its best — yet it was powerful comments by McCain’s daughter that may be most remembered.
“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but is in fact born of fear,” Obama said on Saturday. “John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.”
Bush said if the country is “ever tempted to forget who we are,” or grows weary of its cause, “John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder; We’re better than this. America is better than this.”
The solemn funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral also featured tributes from globally known figures such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Yet the 17-minute eulogy by McCain’s 33-year-old daughter Meghan was, perhaps, the most powerful.
Bravery in Battle
Her tearful remembrance recounted McCain’s bravery in battle and his endurance as a prisoner of war, but she focused on his role as a loving father and her pride in being his daughter. She included barely veiled rebukes of President Donald Trump, who repeatedly clashed with the late senator and whose absence from the funeral was conspicuous.
Parts of Obama’s and Bush’s remarks also seemed to reference Trump, who wasn’t mentioned by name but whose daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, both White House advisers, were among the mourners.
“We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness. The real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who lived lives of comfort and privilege,’’ Meghan McCain said.
“The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great,” she said. With that line, applause echoed through the cathedral.
The president was pointedly not invited to the funeral, according to the New York Times. As the event was under way, Trump tweeted about Nafta and left the White House for the Trump National Golf Club in Loudoun County, Virginia.
The animosity between McCain and Trump had been mutual, and they clashed often. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump — who received draft deferments during the Vietnam War — disparaged McCain’s former prisoner-of-war status, saying he preferred people who weren’t captured. The president has since repeatedly criticized McCain for not providing the last vote needed in the Senate to repeal Obamacare last year.
This week, after McCain’s death, the American flag at the White House was lowered to half-staff and then raised to full position after a little over a day. Trump agreed to return it to half-staff only after a barrage of criticism.
“I disagreed with many of the things that I assume he believed in. With that being said, I respect his service to the country,” Trump said in an interview Thursday with Bloomberg News.
McCain died Aug. 25 at age 81 after a battle with brain cancer. He will be laid to rest Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he graduated in 1958, after a private service at the academy’s chapel.
McCain served since 1983 in the U.S. House and Senate, including being elected to six Senate terms and rising to be a senior voice on defense and foreign policy. Historically, the former naval aviator and courageous Vietnam prisoner of war will likely be most remembered for his two presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2008, when he was defeated by Bush and then Obama.
Former President Bill Clinton and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton were among the thousands of relatives, friends, members of Congress and staff, and other U.S. and international leaders on hand to remember and mourn the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, irascible lawmaker, and courageous POW.
The funeral was preceded by honors Friday at the Capitol Rotunda. Vice President Mike Pence represented the executive branch at that ceremony. McCain was the 35th American to have the honor of lying in state or honor at the Rotunda.
“On behalf of a grateful nation, we will ever remember John McCain served his country, and John McCain served his country honorably,” the vice president said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called McCain, who spent 5 1/2 years in captivity as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, “one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced.
Thousands of people waited for hours in the heat outside the Capitol to pay their respects to McCain. The line snaked through barricades on a street near the entrance. Many stood with umbrellas to shield them from the sun.
Before McCain’s casket arrived at the National Cathedral, the former Navy pilot paid respects one last time, in death, to lives lost during the Vietnam War.
The motorcade carrying McCain’s body from the U.S. Capitol paused at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where his widow, Cindy McCain, placed a ceremonial wreath. She is viewed as a potential choice to be appointed by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to serve as an interim successor to her husband until a special election is held in 2020.
The honorary pallbearers included former Vice President Joe Biden, actor and filmmaker Warren Beatty, and former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, who co-authored with McCain a 2002 campaign finance overhaul that was the late senator’s signature legislative achievement.
Michael R. Bloomberg, the owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP, also was an honorary pallbearer, as was former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, another potential 2008 running mate McCain considered before deciding on then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, as well as Fred Smith, founder and chief executive officers of FedEx Corp.
Since Congress approved the National Cathedral’s charter in 1893, it has been the location for funerals or memorial services for almost all U.S. presidents as well as other prominent Americans, including astronaut Neil Armstrong in 2012 and newspaperman Ben Bradlee in 2014. The last farewell held there for a U.S. senator was in 2012 for Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.