Washington luminaries, former presidents and the family of John McCain gathered Saturday at Washington National Cathedral to honor and remember the late senator in a grand display of pomp and unity in the nation’s capital.
One figure who was notably absent from Saturday’s event: President Donald Trump, with whom McCain frequently feuded and whom he did not want to attend his memorial services. Instead, Trump visited one of his golf courses in Sterling, Virginia, and tweeted on several occasions about unrelated topics, including about trade negotiations with Canada.
“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,” Meghan McCain, one of the late senator’s daughters, said in her remarks. The barb was one of several she interspersed in an emotional remembrance, during which she struggled to fight back tears.
“The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great,” she said at one point to sustained applause inside the cathedral.
The ceremony featured tributes from Republican former President George W. Bush, who prevailed over McCain in the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, and Democratic former President Barack Obama, who ran against McCain in the 2008 presidential election and won.
Bush remembered McCain in his remarks as “above all, a man with a code,” saying that “he lived by a set of public virtues that brought strength and purpose to his life and to his country.”
The former President said that the late senator “was courageous” and “honest, no matter whom it offended,” adding that even “presidents were not spared.”
Obama said when McCain asked him to speak at the memorial service, he felt a mixture of “sadness” and “a certain surprise.” The request “captured some of John’s essential qualities,” including his “ability to see past differences in search of common ground,” Obama said.
The former President acknowledged the contrast between himself and McCain, saying, “We were standard-bearers of different American political traditions.” But Obama spoke of a deep respect for the late senator. “For all our differences, for all the times we sparred, I never tried to hide, and I think John came to understand, the long-standing admiration that I had for him.”
Obama said of McCain, “When all was said and done, we were on the same team.”
Display of unity
The remarks from former Democratic and Republican presidents who were once rivals to McCain sent a message of unity and bipartisanship at a time when Washington is deeply divided.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said at the service that “the world will be lonelier without John McCain,” but that, “even in his parting, John has bestowed on us a much-needed moment of unity.”
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent, recalled his friendship with McCain and spoke at length about how McCain had wanted to name him as a running mate during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Lieberman recalled questioning whether it could work. “When he first talked to me about it, I said, ‘You know John, I’m really honored, but I don’t see how you can do it,'” he said, remembering a conversation he had with McCain.
He said that the late senator responded with some impatience, saying: “That’s the point Joe … You’re a Democrat, I’m a Republican, we could give our country the bipartisan leadership it needs for a change.”
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election was not invited to any of the memorial services.
Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden, who delivered an emotional eulogy for McCain at a memorial service in Arizona on Thursday, served as a pallbearer on Saturday.
Actor Warren Beatty, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and former chief of staff to McCain Mark Salter are also serving as pallbearers, among others.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close friend of McCain’s, and McCain’s children Jimmy and Sidney McCain are taking part in the ceremony as well.
The President’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner are both attending the ceremony. Former Democratic President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are also at the service.
The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, delivered a blessing during the service.
Week of memorials
The service followed a public procession that brought McCain’s body from the US Capitol to the cathedral. The motorcade stopped along the way at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where Cindy McCain, the late senator’s wife, laid a wreath in memory of those who served in the Vietnam War.
McCain, who died at the age of 81 last Saturday after a lengthy battle with brain cancer, was an iconic figure in US politics. The Arizona Republican leaves behind a storied legacy of serving his country in Congress and in the military as a naval pilot.
The service at Washington National Cathedral is one of several events honoring McCain’s life this week.
On Thursday, a memorial service was held in Phoenix and on Friday, a ceremony was held in the US Capitol, where McCain’s body was lain in state. On Sunday, a private service will take place at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and then his body will be laid to rest in the US Naval Academy Cemetery.