A memorial service for the late Sen. John McCain on Saturday turned into a clear rebuke of President Donald Trump’s divisive politics as his daughter, two former presidents and political dignitaries used their tributes to call for a return to civility.
“The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great,” daughter Meghan McCain said, setting the tone for eulogies by Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
The audience of Washington power players erupted in applause.
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Standing near McCain’s flag-draped casket and with Trump’s daughter among the audience at Washington National Cathedral, Meghan McCain delivered a broadside against the uninvited president without mentioning his name.
“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 while he suffered and served,” she said, her voice first choking back tears, then raising to anger.
The nearly three-hour service was a remarkable show of defiance against a president McCain openly defied in life. The dignitaries included three former presidents, at least four former secretaries of state and members of the House and Senate, where McCain served for more than three decades. Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, also attended, while Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and others represented the administration in Trump’s absence.
Trump chose to head to his Virginia golf course during the service and tweeted his grievances against the FBI and NAFTA throughout the day.
McCain asked Obama and Bush to speak, choosing the Democrat and the Republican who had blocked his two bids for the White House. The former presidents drew on the senator’s legacy at home and abroad to speak of the nation’s values. Their pushback to Trump was more subtle than Meghan McCain’s but unmistakable nonetheless.
Obama spoke of the long talks he and McCain would have privately in the Oval Office and the senator’s understanding that America’s security and influence came not from “our ability to bend others to our will” but universal values of rule of law and human rights.
“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phoney controversies and manufactured outrage,” Obama said in a not-so-veiled nod to Trump. “It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is born in fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.”
Bush said one of the great gifts in his life was becoming friends with his former White House rival. He said they would in later years recall their political battles like former football players remembering the big game.
But mostly Bush recalled a champion for the “forgotten people” at home and abroad whose legacy will serve as a reminder, even in times of doubt, of the power of America as more than a physical place but a “carrier of human aspirations.”
“John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder — we are better than this, America is better than this,” Bush said.
Washington’s past and present political elite bore witness. Among those in the front row at the cathedral were Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as Dick Cheney and Al Gore.
McCain’s motorcade arrived from the Capitol, where he laid in state overnight. Along the way the procession stopped at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where McCain’s wife, Cindy, placed a wreath.
It was the last public event in Washington, where McCain lived and worked over four decades, and part of McCain’s five-day, cross-country funeral procession. He died Aug. 25 at age 81.
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“This week’s celebration of the life and values and patriotism of this hero, I think have taken our country above all that,” said former Sen. Joe Lieberman, considered by McCain as a running mate in 2008. “In a way, it’s the last great gift that John McCain gave America.”
McCain had long urged the Senate and the polarized nation to recognize the humanity even in bitter political opponents. McCain’s request for speeches by the former presidents, to some, represents that ideal.
“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,” McCain wrote in his farewell letter to the nation, read posthumously by a longtime aide. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
McCain is to be buried Sunday at his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, next to his best friend from the Class of 1958, Adm. Chuck Larson.
“Back,” McCain wrote on the last page of his recent memoir, “where it began.”