Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) never attained the presidency, but the funeral today at the Washington National Cathedral had the feel of a presidential funeral, as has the week of ceremonial events that preceded it. The service at the cathedral was simultaneously an appropriately solemn send-off and a bit of an old home week. And the music was glorious.
Capitol Hill veterans (staff and current and former lawmakers, including former House speaker John Boehner), Navy sailors in dress whites marching in two by two, and a trio of former presidents all came to honor a national hero. Bill Browder, the man behind the Magnitsky Act, attended, as did close advisers Rick Davis and Mark Salter. Jay Leno attended, and so did former secretaries of state Madeleine K. Albright and John F. Kerry, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, former vice presidents Al Gore and Richard B. Cheney, and former Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman. Howard Kohr, executive director of AIPAC, chatted amiably with national security adviser John Bolton; Mitt and Ann Romney unassumingly waited in the aisle to find their seats. The sins of the father were not visited upon first daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who bantered with former senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and his wife Hadassah.
And many, many officers from all branches of the military sat in the north apse, their medals and buttons glistening in the light that came through the stain glass window behind them. The sonorous melodies from the Navy Band rang out as the cathedral filled to its 3,204 capacity.
The point could not have any more stark – the country’s past and current public servants were united in their admiration for McCain; only President Trump was excluded. McCain would have been delighted, no doubt. He had a year to plan for this occasion, and it showed.
A hush fell over the cathedral at 9:40 a.m. or so. The band stopped. From the press section high in the south apse balcony, all one could hear was the clicking of cameras. And then it began with a brief prayer, and once again the Navy Band’s lush tones filled the space.
Meghan McCain, choking back tears, acknowledged her father’s public greatness but declared that his greatness was defined by his role as father. She drew applause when she declared with not a little bit of anger, “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great.” She showed her father’s defiance as she declared, “We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness. The real thing, not the 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.”
There were lovely anecdotes and soaring themes from Lieberman. “His death seems to have reminded the American people that these values are what make us a great nation,” said Lieberman. “In a way, it’s the last great gift that John McCain gave America,” he said. He spoke with tenderness and admiration, with fervor when he told of McCain’s welcome by dissidents around the world who drew strength from him. With gentle humor, he explained McCain’s willingness on trips abroad to hang out in the hotel on Friday nights with his Shabbat-observant friend, riding the elevator that was set for the Sabbath to stop at every floor. “John had many virtues, but patience was not one of them,” he deadpanned.
Both former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush spoke elegantly. Bush, whose father embodied the same code as did McCain, said, “He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators. Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power, could not abide bigots and swaggering despots.” And in a very poignant conclusion, Bush said we should remember McCain as whispering over our shoulder: “We are better than this. America is better than this.” He reiterated that even in death, McCain remains “unwavering, undimmed, unequaled.”
Obama cracked that McCain had found a way to get him and Bush to say nice things about McCain in public; however, his message was deeply serious. When McCain objected to a voter in the 2008 campaign calling Obama an “Arab,” Obama said he was “defending America’s character, not just mine.” It was McCain’s “largeness of spirit,” Obama said, and his insistence that in the face of petty politics we “be bigger than that” and “better than that.” He concluded, “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that will ever come can depend on what you do today. What better way to honor John McCain’s life of service than, as best we can, follow his example?”
“Battle Hymn of the Republic,” evoking the first Republican president, played majestically. John McCain was worthy of the association. And when Renée Fleming’s gorgeous soprano voice sang “Danny Boy,” Cindy and Meghan McCain, and many in the audience, were reduced to tears.
One of McCain’s longtime staffers said to me before the service, “McCain was a hero; this week he became a legend.” There are few politicians who evoke that sort of loyalty and few who could bring together virtually all of Washington officialdom and evoke such an outpouring of genuine emotion. By the end of the service, one could believe this was not hyperbole.
Years from now we will remember Meghan McCain’s emotion and the elegance of the eulogists but perhaps most of all the magnificent music. Beyond words, beyond rational argument, it lifted and moved those in attendance. It took us out of the mundane and to higher aspirations: to be better. In that respect, in the lines of the songs and the melodies of the band, John McCain was very much present in the cathedral.