It was a defining moment over four days of public events to honor the senior senator from Arizona, Vietnam War hero and 2008 Republican presidential nominee, who for three years stood as one of Trump’s fiercest antagonists.
Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush — the men who crushed McCain’s presidential ambitions — echoed Meghan McCain’s sentiments but in a more political form at the memorial service. They praised a free press and ideals that go beyond borders, implicit shots at Trump’s assertion that the news media is the “enemy of the people” and his insistence on a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
The casket of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) arrives at the Capitol in Washington. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Remembering Sen. John McCain
But the senator’s daughter went straight for the jugular, making clear that her family’s political feud with Trump didn’t end when John McCain lost his 13-month battle with brain cancer on Aug. 25.
“We mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing,” said Meghan McCain, 33. “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.”
In the audience, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner showed no reaction. That the president’s daughter and son-in-law attended spoke to the high reverence of the moment. It also made clear that the McCain fight is with the president alone.
The McCain family did not invite Trump to any of the celebrations of the late senator’s life, from events in Phoenix on Wednesday and Thursday to Friday’s ceremony before McCain’s casket was viewed at the Capitol and culminating with Trump’s absence Saturday at the Cathedral.
Instead, on a drizzling morning, Trump spent his time at the White House, tweeting angrily about Canada’s trade policy and the deepening criminal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race. He then went to his golf course in Virginia.
Just a few miles away, mourners convened in the type of massive bipartisan gathering of American leadership and foreign dignitaries that is usually reserved for inaugurations or the death of a president.
During the 2.5-hour service, most critiques of Trump came in that longtime Washington tradition of slamming someone while not saying his name and maintaining plausible deniability after the fact.
“His death seems to have reminded the American people that these values are what make us a great nation, not the tribal partisanship and personal-attack politics that have recently characterized our life,” said Joseph I. Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee who became one of McCain’s closest friends.
In his last months, McCain discussed the eulogy with his daughter and gave her strict instructions: “Show them how tough you are.”
On Saturday, Meghan McCain did that, not by mincing words or being subtly diplomatic. There was no question that she directed her words at Trump and his talk of a border wall shutting out immigrants, then boasting about it on Twitter.
“The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold. She’s resourceful, confident, secure,” the daughter said. “She meets her responsibilities. She speaks quietly because she’s strong.”
The co-host of ABC’s “The View” shared several stories of her childhood, the tough father crooning “Singin’ in the Rain” as raindrops fell at their home and demanding that she get back to horseback riding after a fall that broke her collarbone.
“Nothing is going to break you,” he told his daughter.
She struggled at times to maintain her composure, fighting through tears.
“Dad, I love you, I always have. All that I am, all that I hope, all that I dream is grounded in what you taught me. You loved me, and you showed me what love must be,” she said.
Meghan McCain is the only McCain child who is outspoken about her political views, taking socially liberal positions on issues such as same-sex marriage while embracing her father’s national security policies.
But the late senator’s daughter had plenty of backing in her family. When she denounced Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, her mother, Cindy, and brother Jimmy were among those applauding. As she finished speaking and returned to the family pew, her mother rose and embraced her.
Afterward, Lieberman said he was proud of her for being so blunt. “It was a great tribute to John. I hope somebody’s listening in the White House. You can always be greater, but this country is great,” he said in an interview.
“Her words were heartfelt. She was speaking truth as she saw it,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close McCain ally who also has a productive relationship with Trump, said afterward.
Saturday’s breathtaking event brought together dozens of Democratic and Republican stalwarts of the past 50 years. Across from McCain’s widow sat an amazing tableau of American politics: Obama and wife Michelle; Bush and wife Laura; former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton; former vice president Richard B. Cheney and wife Lynne; and former vice president Al Gore.
The only living presidents not in attendance were George H.W. Bush, 94, and Jimmy Carter, 93. And Trump.
Yet most leading members of Trump’s administration were on hand. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis escorted Cindy McCain at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial beforehand as she placed a wreath near the Wall etched with the names of those who died in the war. Kelly and Mattis then took prominent seats inside the cathedral.
Henry Kissinger, Richard M. Nixon’s secretary of state during Vietnam, honored McCain.
“Our country has had the good fortune that at times of national trial, a few great personalities have emerged to remind us of our essential unity and inspire us to fulfill our sustaining values,” he said. “John McCain was one of those gifts of destiny.”
“The world will be lonelier without John McCain.”
Outside the cathedral, onlookers spoke of what McCain represented. Sisters Erin and Katie Taylor stood on the sidewalk and waved miniature American flags.
“We’re both Democrats,” Katie Taylor, 35, said with a laugh.
“But this just seemed like the right thing to do,” Erin Taylor, 36, said.
The sisters said that more than anything, they admired McCain’s bipartisan work ethic.
“He has represented a constant in the Senate,” she said. “A levelheadedness through ups and downs on both sides of the aisle.”
Inside the cathedral, at the end of the service, opera star Renée Fleming sang the haunting ballad “Danny Boy,” and Cindy McCain covered her mouth with her hand and rested her head on the shoulder of son Jack. She bit her bottom lip, and tears stained her cheeks. When the song ended, McCain bowed her head and wiped away the tears.
Katherine Shaver and Reis Thebault contributed to this report.