PHOENIX — Former vice president Joseph R. Biden and NFL star Larry Fitzgerald hailed John McCain as an authentic American hero Thursday at a memorial service marked by tears, some laughter and a send-off to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “My Way.”
Biden and Fitzgerald headed a lineup of a half-dozen speakers at the service at North Phoenix Baptist Church, the second of five days of events celebrating the life of McCain, who died of brain cancer Saturday at age 81. The ceremony was attended by more than two-dozen of the Arizona Republican’s current and former Senate colleagues as well as former vice president Dan Quayle.
Fitzgerald, who has known McCain for years and visited the former Navy pilot’s jail cell and the site where he was shot down in Vietnam, described him as someone who “celebrated differences” and cared about “the substance of my heart, more so than where I came from.”
“While from very different worlds, we developed a meaningful friendship,” said the Arizona Cardinals wide receiver.
In what appeared to be a veiled swipe at President Trump, Biden said some believed McCain lived by “an ancient, antiquated code where honor, courage, character, integrity and duty were what mattered.”
“But the truth is, John’s code was ageless — is ageless,” Biden said. McCain’s code, he added, was “grounded in respect and decency, basic fairness, the intolerance for the abuse of power.”
On Friday, McCain’s body will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The following day, former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush are among those expected to deliver tributes at a memorial service for McCain at Washington National Cathedral. On Sunday, the senator will be buried in a private funeral at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Biden and McCain served together in the Senate for more than two decades. The two foreign policy giants famously tangled on some of the most pressing national security issues. Yet their close friendship transcended their policy differences.
An emotional Biden, who dabbed at tears with a handkerchief, spoke for a half-hour.
“My name is Joe Biden. I’m a Democrat,” he said as introduction, speaking at a church whose former pastor addressed the Republican National Convention in 2008, when Biden and McCain were on opposite tickets.
“And I loved John McCain,” Biden said to laughter.
Yet much of his speech was dark and deeply personal. Biden’s voice fell to a raspy whisper as he addressed McCain’s relatives by name and spoke of how brain cancer also killed his own son Beau three years ago, and a car accident took his wife and daughter decades earlier.
“I know how hard it is to bury a child, Mrs. McCain,” Biden said, addressing the late senator’s 106-year-old mother, Roberta McCain, who was not at the service. “It’s like being sucked into a black hole inside your chest, and it’s frightening, and there’s nothing anyone can say or do to ease the pain right now.”
“You know you’re going to make it when the image of your dad, your husband, your friend crosses your mind, and a smile comes to your lip before a tear to your eye,” he said, gripping the lectern with both hands. “I give you my word, I promise you, this I know: That day will come.”
Near the end of his speech, he quoted from John McCain’s final letter to the public as a balm against despair.
“John believed in the American people — all 325 million of us,” Biden said. “He believed always in the promise of America because ‘nothing is inevitable here.’ Those are the last things John said to the whole nation as he knew he was about to depart.”
The 34-year-old Fitzgerald spoke about the unlikely friendship he struck up with a senator more than 40 years his senior.
“I’m black; he was white. I’m young; he wasn’t so young. He lived with physical limitations brought on by war; I’m a professional athlete. He ran for president; I run out of bounds. He was the epitome of toughness, and I do everything I can to avoid contact,” Fitzgerald said.
McCain, he added, “didn’t judge individuals based on the color of their skin, their gender, their backgrounds, their political affiliations or their bank accounts. He evaluated them on the merits of their character and the contents of their hearts.”
Among the speakers Thursday was Grant Woods, McCain’s former chief of staff, who retold one of the earliest anecdotes from the epic that was the senator’s life. It was about a prison guard in Vietnam who showed McCain unexpected kindness by loosening the painful ropes around his wrists and, much later in his imprisonment, drawing a cross in the dirt for him as a sort of Christmas gift.
He told other stories, too — about McCain, the bad driver, and McCain, the politician who knew how to apologize when he screwed up.
Woods concluded with an appeal to everyone in the room — and probably the country.
“In the end, this Republican-Democrat thing is not important,” he said. “We’re all Americans. John McCain believed in our Constitution. He would not stand by as people tried to trample it.”
“He kept the faith,” Woods concluded and drew a cross on the stage with his shoe.
Another speaker was Tommy Espinoza, godfather to James “Jimmy” McCain, the senator’s youngest son. A registered Democrat, Espinoza runs a fund aimed at boosting investment in low-income Latino communities and has supported the senator’s efforts at rewriting immigration laws.
He recounted how John McCain crossed party lines by first inviting him to co-chair his campaign, then asking him to speak at the Republican National Convention.
“Well, I’m a Democrat,” Espinoza said he reminded McCain, to laughs from the audience. “Ah, I don’t care. I want you there,” he said McCain replied.
Ahead of the service Thursday morning, the line for people with tickets to sit in the public section wrapped halfway around the block-sized church. Almost everyone was dressed in their finest — suits, ties, dresses.
Tri Le and his wife, Helene Nguyen, had come from Mesa, Ariz., for the service. Le said he and his wife came to the United States from Vietnam a year ago seeking asylum, as he was a Christian pastor in Vietnam and had been arrested for practicing his faith.
Le was a child in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and only vaguely knew of stories about the famous American captured by communists who “loved his friends and refused to be released” until they were.
“I don’t talk about the bad side of the war,” Le said. “I love Americans. I love people who love Americans.” And so, he came to pay his respects.
Sonmez reported from Washington. Paul Kane contributed to this article.