WASHINGTON — John McCain, a war hero who twice ran for the White House, won praise as a role model who championed the country’s highest ideals from the two presidents he lost to in their eulogies at his funeral at the National Cathedral on Saturday.
In a patriotic service, friends, family and former rivals of the late Republican senator from Arizona spoke of his remarkable life as a long-suffering POW and long-serving public servant. They recalled him as a friend, father and husband who had courage and honor but also a sharp tongue and a temper.
And, without speaking his name, they drew an unmistakable contrast with President Donald Trump — who wasn’t invited to the service — as they lauded McCain’s dedication to America’s founding values and his creed that calls for serving a cause greater than yourself.
“We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness,” said McCain’s daughter Meghan in the first and most impassioned and emotional eulogy, as she stood near the flag-draped casket of her father.
She called it “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 while he suffered and served.”
And in a line that drew prolonged applause, she added, “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”
Former President Barack Obama also called on McCain’s vision for political discourse, as he noted the change in American political norms in recent years.
“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,” Obama told Washington’s most powerful elites gathered between the soaring neo-gothic arches.
“It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear,” Obama said. “John called us to be bigger than that. He called us to be better than that.”
Former President George W. Bush hailed McCain for his humanity, for his decency and for his moral compass, which directed him to meet with dissidents when he visited autocracies such as Russia and to treat his political foes as people, not enemies.
“He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators,” Bush said. “He was honorable, always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings.”
All speakers touched on the legendary larger-than-life story of his nearly 82 years: The son and grandson of admirals, a rebellious cadet, a fighter pilot shot down and brutally held as a POW, and then a turn to politics that led to elections to the House and Senate and two unsuccessful runs for the presidency in 2000 and 2008.
Henry Kissinger, who served as President Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, recalled meeting McCain when he finally returned to the United States in 1973, 5 1/2 years after being shot down over Hanoi.
Kissinger recalled that he had rejected Vietnam’s offer to free McCain. “Against all my instincts I thanked them for the offer but refused. I wondered what John would say when we met,” he said. And when they did, he said McCain told him, “Thank you for saving my honor.”
Yet Meghan McCain also spoke tearfully and personally about the man who above and beyond all else was her father. “My father is gone and my sorrow is immense,” she said.
McCain friend Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic and independent senator from Connecticut, told stories of McCain’s impatience, favorite jokes and his playful teasing. But he also talked about McCain’s craving for bipartisanship in an increasingly partisan political world.
McCain also could be impatient and demanding, exploding in anger and quick to apologize or forgive — both Bush and Obama recalled that he constantly criticized them for what he thought were mistakes but still considered him to be a friend.
Bush acknowledged that he and McCain fought a bitter Republican primary battle in 2000, but added, “In the process, rivalry melted away ... I got to enjoy one of life’s great gifts, the friendship of John McCain.”
Obama joked that McCain was not reluctant to criticize him and told him nearly every day he was making a mistake. But he also said he and McCain would quietly meet in the Oval Office for long conversations they both learned from.
As McCain fought his losing battle with brain cancer, he planned out his five-day funeral procession that would stretch from his adopted home state of Arizona to a rare resting in state in the Capitol rotunda, and a service at the National Cathedral usually reserved for presidents.
Obama said it was a surprise when McCain asked him in April to deliver a speech at his funeral, but then realized it was McCain being unpredictable, even a little contrarian, he said.
“It showed his irreverence, his sense of humor, a little bit of a mischievous streak,” he said. “After all, what better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience?”
McCain may have been irascible and insistent with his fellow lawmakers, but he drew an extraordinary crowd to the service in addition to his 106-year-old mother and his 76-year-old brother, and his own family.
They included three former presidents and their first ladies who sat in a row — Barack and Michelle Obama, George W. and Laura Bush, and Bill and Hillary Clinton — and four failed major party presidential candidates — Bob Dole, Al Gore, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton.
His pallbearers included former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, actor Warren Beatty, McCain friend and co-author of several books Mark Salter, and Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza.
And while Trump remained at the White House and then at his golf resort in Virginia, the Trump administration was represented by his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis and others.
The service featured patriotic songs — “My Country Tis of Thee,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America the Beautiful” — spirituals and hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art,” and an old Irish tune: “Danny Boy.”
The honor of military service suffused the funeral and as the cortege made its way to the cathedral, it stopped at the Vietnam Memorial, where McCain’s widow and family, accompanied by Kelly and Mattis, paid their respects to the more than 50,000 U.S. troops who died in the long, controversial war.
McCain will be buried Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy cemetery next to his best friend from the Class of 1958, Adm. Chuck Larson.
Both Bush and Obama urged America during these days to listen to what Bush called McCain’s “whisper over our shoulder: We are better than this. America is better than this.”
Obama took a page from McCain’s favorite book, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway, and said, “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be, but what will happen in all the other days will depend on what you do today. What better way to honor John McCain than follow his example?”