Like the man who delivered it, former vice president Joe Biden’s eulogy for Sen. John McCain was funny, open and self-deprecating. Beyond that, his words were nearly operatic in their emotional arc. Biden spoke to McCain’s family, drawing on the well of his own sorrow following the untimely death of his son, Beau. “I promise you, I promise you,” he repeated that there will be a time when a smile rather than a tear comes first in recalling your departed loved one. When that happens, he counseled, “you know you’re going to make it.” His description of the searing pain that envelops one in mourning would bring tears and knowing nods to anyone who has lost a dearly loved one. “It’s like being sucked into a black hole inside your chest, and it’s frightening,” he said. And you knew he spoke from experience.
He also provided the comfort and candor only someone who has known great loss can impart. “There’s nothing anyone can say or do to ease the pain right now. But I pray, I pray you take some comfort knowing that because you shared John with all of us your whole life, the world now shares with you the ache of John’s death.”
Biden traced his and McCain’s careers and shared some escapades, but when he got to explaining why McCain’s death has moved the entire country, his eulogy took flight. Biden restated the animating belief that sustained McCain in his prison cell in Hanoi and guided him his entire life. The Arizona senator, said Biden, “was neither selfish or self-serving. John understood that America, first and foremost, was an idea . . . organized around, not tribe, but ideals.”
Beyond that, however, Biden distilled the essence of McCain and his model of optimism. “John didn’t believe that America’s future and fate rested on heroes,” Biden said, adding that McCain “understood what I hope we all remember: Heroes didn’t build this country; ordinary people given half a chance are capable of doing extraordinary things — extraordinary things.” And that unflinching optimism in Americans’ inherent decency, ingenuity, diligence and willingness to sacrifice made us believe in those things, too.
Biden is right. Americans want to believe in that America, where goodness, kindness, respect and honor are self-evident, and that those values are what make us great. McCain, in one sense, was the true populist. We do not believe in a strongman or any one man to solve our problems. We do not run from challenges or turn a deaf ear toward suffering. It was McCain’s conviction that helped many of us believe, especially during the long winter of this presidency, that his code, what Biden called the “McCain code,” can endure. We want to be better, and McCain helped us believe that was possible.
Biden said it seemed as though “John came from another age, that lived by another code. An ancient, antiquated code where honor, courage, character, integrity, duty, where it mattered.” However, Biden said, that is an eternal code. McCain, as Biden noted, was an extraordinary individual, but it’s a measure of how far short our country has fallen short that he now instills such awe. Biden told an amusing story of an award they both received for civility. “An award . . . for civility,” Biden said with just the right amount of incredulity. Yes, surely we can be more polite to one another.
Biden’s eulogy on Thursday will be followed by those of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on Saturday at the National Cathedral. They will find it difficult to exceed the emotion and moral seriousness provided by Biden.