WASHINGTON (TNS) — Sen. John McCain never attained the American presidency he twice sought, yet official Washington gathered for a farewell memorial on Saturday that had all the splendor and solemnity of a state funeral, marked by bipartisan tributes that doubled as implicit but extraordinarily powerful rebukes of the divisive incumbent president.
Under the soaring Neo-Gothic arches of Washington National Cathedral, two former presidents who thwarted McCain's aspirations to that office delivered back-to-back eulogies, joining current and former members of Congress, Cabinet officials, diplomats and military officers to honor a man hailed as a war hero and statesman, yet acknowledged as a flawed and complicated character.
The dual keynote role for Democrat Barack Obama and Republican George W. Bush, before 2,500 invited guests who filled the polished pews, was McCain's idea — his final, poignant nod to the bipartisanship he championed. It served also as a veiled yet clear remonstrance of the uninvited President Donald Trump, who spent the morning tweeting from the White House before repairing to his Virginia golf club.
That undercurrent ran through the eulogists' remarks as well.
"So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage," Obama said. "It's a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear.
"John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that."
Bush, who defeated McCain in a rancorous race for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination that left his rival embittered for several years, said that McCain "respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators. He was honorable, always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings."
"Perhaps above all," Bush added, "John detested the abuse of power."
Obama, who vanquished McCain in 2008 after the senator had succeeded in winning his party's nomination, quipped of McCain's choice of his two former adversaries as eulogists: "What better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience?"
Despite their many differences on foreign policy, Obama said he and McCain "stood together on America's role as the one indispensable nation, believing that with great power and great blessings come great responsibilities.
"We never doubted the other man's sincerity or the other man's patriotism," Obama added, "or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team."
In past months at his home in Sedona, Ariz., before dying of brain cancer a week ago, McCain personally presided over many of the preparations for his remembrance. They included an abundance of symbolic touchstones from his life and career, along with the instruction that Trump not be included. While the president was absent, the implicit criticisms in the eulogies made him a palpable presence.
Perhaps the clearest slap at Trump, who'd continued to deride McCain at political rallies to the end, came from daughter Meghan McCain, who delivered the first of the eulogies. She invoked the president's signature slogan, saying, "The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great."
That evoked the first applause from an audience that included some administration officials, among them Trump's daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
In another dig at Trump, who received repeated medical deferments to avoid service in Vietnam, Meghan McCain said her father's mourners lamented "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."
While the eulogists celebrated McCain as a statesman-warrior, they also were at times unsparing, if affectionately so, in their critiques of him — as he was. Amid praise for his patriotism, courage and civility, they also variously described McCain as cantankerous, contrarian, sometimes ego-driven and occasionally given to lapses of judgment that brought him lasting regret.
"It's no secret," Obama said, " ... that he had a temper. And when it flared up, it was a wonder to behold — his jaw grinding, his face reddening, his eyes boring a hole right through you."
"Not that I ever experienced this firsthand, mind you," he added, provoking laughter that echoed through the cathedral's majestic nave.
The memorial service was a cap to days of public commemorations that started in Arizona and continued to the Capitol Rotunda, where McCain lay in state Friday, only the 31st American accorded that honor.
Present throughout was McCain's snowy-haired, 106-year-old mother, Roberta, taking in the tributes to the man she still called "Johnny." The McCain family plans a private burial service on Sunday at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where the senator — the son and grandson of four-star admirals — graduated in 1958.
Among the attendees at Saturday's service were Bill and Hillary Clinton and former Sens. Robert Dole, the longtime Republican Senate leader, and Joe Lieberman, the former Democrat whom McCain later said he would have preferred as his 2008 vice presidential running mate, rather than Sarah Palin, who was not invited.
Lieberman, in his eulogy, said of McCain, "He regularly reached across party lines because he knew that was the only way to solve problems."
Close to the end of the 2-hour proceedings, whose musical offerings consisted mainly of patriotic hymns, soprano Renee Fleming affectingly performed the Irish ballad "Danny Boy," which friends and associates said McCain liked to listen to in the months following his diagnosis last year.
His wife, Cindy, who otherwise was stoic through the days of public ceremonies, raised a hand to her mouth as tears filled her eyes.
Earlier Saturday, a rainstorm had let up when the hearse carrying McCain's casket across town from the Capitol to the cathedral stopped at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where Cindy McCain left a wreath of red and white roses accented with blue flowers, and a ribbon that read, "In honor of all who served."
McCain endured nearly six years of torture in captivity after being shot down as a Navy pilot over Hanoi, but later became a champion of postwar reconciliation and was a widely admired figure in Vietnam.
The senator's wife was silently escorted down the inclined walkway alongside the memorial wall by Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, two former Marine generals McCain knew well and whose appointments by Trump reassured the senator even as he expressed doubts about the president's fitness for office.
At the deepest point of the monument, where the wall angles, a sailor placed the wreath on a stand, and the small group, which included McCain's seven children, paused for prayer. As they slowly walked back to the motorcade, assembled tourists broke into applause.
On Friday, after McCain's body had arrived in Washington on a government plane, at his first stop an honor guard made up of members of the branches of the U.S. military carried his casket into the Capitol Rotunda, where members of Congress, governors, diplomats and military officers awaited.
There, the half-hour ceremony offered up the sometimes uncomfortable spectacle of Trump's principal political allies hailing McCain's long public service.
"The president asked me to be here, on behalf of a grateful nation, to pay a debt of honor and respect to a man who served our country throughout his life in uniform and in public office," said Vice President Mike Pence.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., who abandoned his resistance to candidate Trump to throw his weight behind the president's agenda, called McCain "one of the bravest souls our nation has produced." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who for years had battled bitterly and ultimately successfully against McCain's signature priority, campaign finance reform, described him as an American hero.
"We thank God for giving this country John McCain," McConnell said.
Throughout the steamy afternoon and into the evening Friday, thousands of members of the public had filed into the Rotunda to pass by McCain's casket, which rested atop a pine catafalque built more than a century and a half ago for President Abraham Lincoln.