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Friends, family gather at the Arizona Capitol to bid farewell to John McCain

As Sen. John McCain's body lie in state in the Arizona State Capitol rotunda, his wife and children paid their final respects. (Video: The Washington Post)

PHOENIX — Arizona friends and family of John McCain remembered the late senator at an emotional ceremony Wednesday, with Gov. Doug Ducey telling those assembled that McCain’s “fight for America isn’t over.”

On what would have been McCain’s 82nd birthday, his body lay in state at the Arizona Capitol, where several of his longtime colleagues delivered tributes. The ceremony was the first of five days of public and private events in Phoenix and Washington honoring McCain, who died Saturday of brain cancer.

“While we grieve today, as a state and as a nation, John McCain’s fight for America isn’t over,” Ducey (R) said. “It’s a fight all Americans are obligated to continue on his behalf.”

McCain’s daughter Meghan sobbed as the ceremony began and later broke down in tears as she stood in front of her father’s casket and bid him farewell.

The list of participants in the proceedings reflected the crossroads at which the Arizona Republican Party finds itself in the wake of McCain’s death and at a time when the conservative base is lurching rightward.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R), who has spoken emotionally about McCain’s legacy in recent days, delivered the benediction. A vocal critic of President Trump who is retiring at the end of his current term, Flake was joined by a group of other lawmakers representing the old guard of the party, including former senator Jon Kyl and former congressman Jim Kolbe.

Kyl, who has been floated as a possible successor to McCain, recounted his travels abroad with the late senator and called him “a strong force for America in the world.”

“John McCain believed in America,” Kyl said. “He believed in its people, its values and its institutions. He said he came to this realization during his time as a POW in Vietnam. ‘I fell in love with my country,’ he said, ‘when I was a prisoner in someone else’s.’”

Ducey will appoint a successor to the six-term senator who will serve through 2020. The decision will have repercussions for the future of the party: Some have called for Ducey to appoint a moderate whose views are similar to McCain’s, while others have urged him to select a conservative who takes a hard-line approach on immigration and other issues.

“Imagining Arizona without John McCain is like picturing Arizona without the Grand Canyon,” Ducey said at one point in his remarks. “It’s just not natural.”

In another moment, he drew a smile from Cindy McCain as he recalled the senator joking to him during one of their final conversations. “My biggest challenge is deciding whether to run for reelection in 2022,” he said McCain told him.

John McCain faced death twice as a Navy pilot and survived brutal years as a POW

After the speeches, Cindy McCain was the first to approach her husband’s casket. She lay one hand on it for half a second, then touched it again and nuzzled her head against it briefly before moving on.

Others followed with their own silent goodbyes.

Jack McCain stood straight for several moments at the coffin before passing. Meghan McCain leaned her body into the casket and openly wept. McCain’s children from his first marriage followed.

Remembering Sen. John McCain

The casket of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) arrives at the Capitol in Washington. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The scene outside the building was a somber one Wednesday morning as McCain’s casket, draped in an American flag, was carried out of a hearse by six members of the Arizona Army National Guard. Cindy McCain walked behind, arm-in-arm with her sons Jack and Jimmy, who like their father, both served in the military.

A Navy veteran, McCain also was honored as a hero for his service during the Vietnam War. A thick column of white-uniformed Navy officers and other members of the military stood at attention as the procession made its way forward into the capitol’s rotunda, where one wall bears a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Former vice president Joe Biden, McCain’s longtime Senate colleague, is expected to speak at a separate service in Phoenix on Thursday. On Friday, there will be a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, and McCain’s body will lie in state. A memorial service will be conducted Saturday at Washington National Cathedral, where former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush are among the expected speakers. McCain will be buried Sunday in a private funeral at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Outside the Arizona Capitol after Wednesday’s ceremony, more than 100 people had already lined up in the heat, though it would be hours before the doors would open to the public.

“He was an honorable man, and there aren’t a lot of those,” said Elaine Lewis, who flew in from San Diego for the memorial service and had been in line since 8:15 a.m.

Lewis said she is a Democrat and therefore not a natural fan of McCain. But she believes he “saved millions of lives” when he voted last year against repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Irene Campbell, whose late husband also fought in Vietnam, was also among those in line.

“I saw him as a prisoner in a cage,” she said of McCain. As her daughter pushed her wheelchair slowly toward the capitol doors, Campbell had little to say about the Arizona Republican’s politics.

“We just had to come,” she said.


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Sonmez reported from Washington.