PHOENIX — An African American NFL legend, the first openly gay Republican congressman to address a national GOP convention, and a registered Democrat who runs an investment firm helping low-income Latinos. It’s hard to imagine a trio that more firmly stand in contrast to the vision espoused by President Trump.
By the time McCain is buried Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy, the parade of those paying tribute to the 2008 GOP presidential nominee will include two ex-presidents who have publicly feuded with Trump; a Russian dissident; a former GOP senator who disavowed Trump near the end of his 2016 campaign; and the former mayor of Trump’s hometown who is actively supporting Democrats this fall.
McCain had some input into the services as he slowly lost his battle with brain cancer over the spring and summer, giving him time to reach out to former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to ask them to give eulogies at Saturday’s service.
Those two have periodically opposed Trump’s policies, particularly when his administration was separating migrant families at the border. The Bush family, like the McCains this week, declined to invite Trump to the funeral for the late first lady Barbara Bush earlier this year.
But those are just the highest-profile of many gestures that could be read as a not-so-subtle trolling attempt at the president.
“I think they kind of ran it by him the last couple of months,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close friend of McCain’s, said of the funeral planning.
Graham, who had tried unsuccessfully to serve as a bridge between Trump and McCain, will read a scripture at Washington National Cathedral that would be difficult to imagine the president ever reading. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you,” the senator will read from the Gospel of John, adding that the greatest form of love is “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
A dig at Trump came here Wednesday, at the service in the Arizona state Capitol, where McCain lay in state for the public to pay respects. “When others were looking into Vladimir Putin’s eyes, with an eye of understanding him and reaching accommodation with him, John of course said: I looked into his eyes and saw KGB,” former senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who served with McCain for 18 years in the Senate, told mourners.
Trump’s summit in Helsinki with Putin, in which he seemed to accept the Russian’s assertion that Moscow officials had not directed the 2016 election interference campaign despite a U.S. intelligence assessment, prompted some of the most scathing comments McCain ever delivered toward the U.S. president.
Listen below: In previously unreleased audio, Paul Kane reveals a story of the last years of McCain’s life and tenure.
Days earlier, in his final words to the nation in a letter, McCain had delivered a veiled rebuke of Trump, warning against confusing patriotism with tribal rivalries.
On Saturday, at Washington National Cathedral, one of McCain’s pallbearers will be Vladimir Kara-Murza. He is the Russian dissident who was introduced to McCain by Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader whom McCain treasured as a friend until he was assassinated in 2015 in Moscow. Kara-Murza has survived multiple poisonings but continues to take up a high-profile role opposing Putin.
“I”ve begged him, too, to be careful,” McCain wrote in “The Restless Wave,” his final book, released in May. “But what’s he to do? It’s his country.”
Other participants reflect McCain’s political view that the Republican Party needs to expand its appeal to minorities, immigrants and younger voters. On Thursday, in addition to former vice president Joe Biden, a friend from their decades of service together in the Senate, Larry Fitzgerald will deliver a speech at the service here.
One of the greatest NFL receivers of all time, Fitzgerald became close friends with McCain during his 14 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. Last September, when Trump called players who knelt during the national anthem “animals,” Fitzgerald denounced the president.
“To go out of your way to call people names, that was divisive and completely disrespectful,” Fitzgerald told an interviewer.
Tommy Espinoza, godfather to Jimmy McCain, the senator’s youngest son, will also speak. A registered Democrat, Espinoza runs the Raza Development Fund, trying to boost investment in low-income Latino communities. He has supported McCain’s efforts at rewriting immigration laws to include a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants — an issue that Trump used against McCain and other Republicans as he ran for president and has rejected in negotiations with Democrats in his first 17 months in office.
On Wednesday former congressman Jim Kolbe (Ariz.) presented the wreath at the state Capitol ceremony. A onetime senior House Republican on foreign affairs, Kolbe addressed the 2000 Republican National Convention on national security matters, as some delegates turned away from Kolbe to shun him because he is gay.
One reading Saturday will come from Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), the former senator who revoked her endorsement of Trump once The Washington Post revealed the candidate’s “Access Hollywood” tape. She narrowly lost reelection and, while she helped usher Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch through his confirmation bid last year, has not taken any formal position in the administration.
She recently told CNN that she has no regrets opposing Trump, particularly as a former local prosecutor who handled sexual assault cases, even though some analysts believe it cost her votes among staunch Trump supporters.
“I realized in my heart that I couldn’t sleep about this,” Ayotte said.
When the Saturday service ends, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg will be among the pallbearers, as he has publicly stated he will spend $80 million this year trying to flip the House to Democratic control.
And then Sunday, McCain’s oldest son, Doug, will deliver the final reading before McCain is buried. It’s from Ephesians, a final call to arms against autocrats.
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world,” the prayer reads in the King James version.
Read more from Paul Kane’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.