But it took a daughter to capture the measure of the man — to remember him as the “fierce conscience of the nation’s best self” and to thrust the rhetorical dagger that was the culmination of a uniquely political week of mourning.
“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,” the senator’s daughter Meghan McCain said in a stunning eulogy laced with grief, anger, pride and love.
“The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great,” she said, before being interrupted by an outburst of spontaneous applause at McCain’s memorial service at Washington’s National Cathedral on Saturday.
It was the most cutting moment of a funeral that operated on two levels. First, it was a farewell to a warrior, a senator, a friend and a father. But the service was also a prolonged allegory that served to highlight McCain’s character, and by comparison, to condemn the politics of personality of Donald Trump.
The funeral marked the largest gathering of the bipartisan political establishment since the President’s stark inaugural address in January 2017. Though he was unwelcome and was not mentioned by name, the event stood as an indictment of Trump’s rule and the ideals his opponents believe he has crushed.
McCain’s death, as the Arizona senator planned, has evolved into an extraordinary political moment that has elevated a national debate over the consequences of the Trump presidency, which critics see as a challenge to constitutional norms and the values on which the United States was founded.
Eulogizers, citing McCain’s honor, courage, patriotic service, obstinacy, humor, reverence for freedom and contempt for bullies, presented the Arizona Republican as the personification of America itself. His loss, and the code by which he lived became a metaphor for something now gone from the nation’s civic arena.
“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,” Obama said in a clear denunciation of Trump.
“Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots,” Bush said, in another apparent reference to Trump’s conduct and affinity for strongmen like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
By asking the two men who thwarted his White House dreams to lead mourners, McCain made a powerful point about lost decency in Washington, the imperative in a democratic system for political enemies to bury their differences, and the importance of national unity.
Obama, who revealed that McCain would come to talk to him privately in the Oval Office — a fact neither man advertised — put it this way: “We never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other man’s patriotism. Or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team.”
One glaring absence
It is a mark of the tortured political times, and the sheer unorthodoxy of the Trump presidency, that the current commander-in-chief was not called upon to lead America in mourning one of its most iconic sons and statesmen.
But a feud that boiled even after McCain’s death a week ago of brain cancer prevented that, along with McCain’s belief that the behavior and views of the current President represent an affront to American ideals — a point he deliberately put at the center of his funeral rites.
Trump spent the morning at the White House, attacking a US ally — Canada — hitting out at Obama, whose name he misspelled in a Twitter post, and assailing the FBI and the Justice Department over the Russia investigation before heading to his golf club in Virginia.
During his campaign, the President said McCain was not a war hero because he was captured in Vietnam and he declined to release a statement marking his death.
It was that kind of behavior that Meghan McCain decried as she spoke from her heart about her father and hero.
“He was a great man. … he was a great fire who burned bright,” she said.
“A few have resented that fire for that light it cast upon them, for the truth it revealed about their character, but my father never cared what they thought,” the senator’s daughter said in staggeringly direct and unrestrained address that would have made her father glow with pride.
She remembered how her father bore his suffering from injuries received as a Vietnam prisoner of war with the “stoic silence that was once the mark of an American man,” in another apparent jab at the President.
Fighting against her grief, and sobbing, McCain’s daughter said she had asked her ailing father how she should approach his eulogy before a vast national audience.
“‘Show them how tough you are,'” she said, quoting the six-term senator and formal naval aviator.
Meghan McCain said her father revered an America that was “generous, welcoming and bold. She is resourceful and confident and secure. America does not boast, because she has no need to,” she said.
When she appropriated Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” there was silence for a few seconds, then quietly at first, but building in a wave, came a round of applause.
In the third row, behind three ex-presidents, their wives and their Secret Service details, sat Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner were also in the congregation.
Across the aisle from the past presidents sat McCain’s wife, Cindy, who lost her composure only once — when opera singer Renee Fleming sang “Danny Boy,” an elegy of loss and love that consoled the senator in the final days of his life. A tear dropped from her right eye and she rested her head on the shoulder of her son Jack, who wore a white dress Navy uniform.
The funeral is unlikely to change political realities on its own. Trump’s supporters may even see validation in the fact that the President is so decried by the political establishment he won power promising to eviscerate. But it seems destined to become a signature moment in the national assessment of Trump’s presidency that will shape the mid-term elections in November and will culminate in the 2020 White House race.
One of McCain’s closest political friends, former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, remarked that his old colleague’s passing had caused Americans to reconsider the country’s founding values of freedom, human rights, opportunity, democracy and equal justice.
“Remarkably, his death seems to have reminded the American people that these values are what makes us a great nation, not the tribal partisanship and personal attack politics that have recently characterized our life,” Lieberman said.
“This week’s celebration of the life and values of patriotism of this hero, I think have taken our country above all that.”
“It’s the last great gift that John McCain gave America.”