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Jay Smith plays the bagpipe during memorial service at North Phoenix Baptist Church for John McCain, Aug. 30, 2018 in Phoenix, Ariz.

Pool/Getty Images

A former vice-president, an NFL star and other friends remembered Sen. John McCain as a “true American hero” – and a terrible driver with a wicked sense of humour and love of a good battle – at a crowded church service Thursday for the maverick politician that ended to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

Addressing an estimated 3,500 mourners, former Vice-President Joe Biden recalled “the sheer joy that crossed his face when he knew he was about to take the stage of the Senate floor and start a fight.”

Biden, a Democrat who was among the fast friends the Republican senator made across the aisle, said he thought of McCain as a brother, “with a lot of family fights.”

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The service for the statesman, former prisoner of war and two-time presidential candidate unfolded at North Phoenix Baptist Church after a motorcade bearing McCain’s body made its way from the state capitol past Arizonans waving American flags and campaign-style McCain signs.

Family members watched in silence as uniformed military members removed the flag-draped casket from a black hearse and carried it into the church. McCain died Saturday of brain cancer at age 81.

McCain’s longtime chief of staff Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general, drew laughs with a eulogy in which he talked about McCain’s “terribly bad driving” and his sense of humour, which included calling the Leisure World retirement community “Seizure World.”

Woods also recalled the way McCain would introduce him to new staff members by saying, “You’ll have to fire half of them.”

The church’s senior pastor, Noe Garcia, pronounced McCain “a true American hero.”

The service brought to a close two days of mourning for the six-term senator and 2008 GOP presidential nominee in his home state.

A motorcade then took McCain’s body to the airport, where it was put aboard a military plane that flew to Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, outside Washington ahead of a lying-in-state at the U.S. Capitol on Friday, a service at the Washington National Cathedral on Saturday, and burial at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, on Sunday.

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Twenty-four sitting U.S. senators and four former senators attended the church service, according to McCain’s office.

Neither Biden nor other speakers uttered President Donald Trump’s name, but Biden made what some saw as a veiled reference to the president when he talked about McCain’s character and how he parted company with those who “lacked the basic values of decency and respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself.”

In an emotional and sometimes amusing eulogy, former U.S. vice president Joe Biden says he thought of the late Senator John McCain as a brother, adding "we had a hell of a lot of family fights." Reuters

Biden said McCain “could not stand the abuse of power wherever he saw it, in whatever form, in whatever country.”

Dabbing his eyes at times, Biden also referred to his own son’s death from cancer, saying of the disease, “It’s brutal, it’s relentless, it’s unforgiving.” And he spoke directly to McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, in the front row: “You were his ballast.”

At the end of the nearly 90-minute ceremony, McCain’s casket was wheeled out of the church to “My Way,” in tribute to a politician known for following his own path based on his personal principles.

McCain clashed openly with Trump, who mocked McCain for getting captured during the Vietnam War. Two White House officials said McCain’s family had asked that Trump not attend the funeral services.

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Trump, who had been widely criticized for his muted response to McCain’s death, insisted in an interview with Bloomberg News Thursday that he’d honoured the senator appropriately.

“I’ve done everything that they requested and no, I don’t think I have at all,” he said in response to a question about whether he’d made a mistake and missed an opportunity to unite the country.

Asked whether McCain would have made a better president than McCain’s 2008 rival, Barack Obama, Trump said: “I don’t want to comment on it. I have a very strong opinion, all right.”

The memorial was laced with humour and featured a racially and ethnically diverse roster of speakers and other participants.

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who is black, talked about his unlikely connection with McCain, a big fan of the state’s sports teams.

“While from very different worlds, we developed a meaningful friendship,” said Fitzgerald, adding that McCain didn’t judge others on their skin colour, gender or bank account but on their character.

As the 11-vehicle motorcade with a 17-motorcycle police escort made its way toward the church, people along the 8-mile (13-kilometre) route held signs that read simply “McCain,” and cars on the other side of the highway stopped or slowed to a crawl in apparent tribute.

A few firefighters saluted from atop a fire engine parked on an overpass as the motorcade passed underneath on Interstate 17.

One man shouted, “We love you!”

It came a day after a private service was held at the Arizona Capitol for family and friends and then an estimated 15,000 people filed past the senator’s casket to pay their final respects.

Michael Fellars was among those awaiting the motorcade outside the church Thursday. The Marine veteran said he was also the fourth person in line to attend the viewing at the state capitol for McCain, a Navy pilot held prisoner by the North Vietnamese for 5 1/2 years after being shot down over Hanoi.

“He was about the only politician that I have ever known who cared for the people in his country, and he tried his level best to make it a better place in which to live,” Fellars said.

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