WASHINGTON — John McCain’s funeral brought together former presidents and vice presidents, past rivals and even once-bitter foes to Washington National Cathedral in an extraordinary show of unity during a time of bitter political divisions.
“In a way, it’s the last great gift that John McCain gave America,” said former Senator Joseph Lieberman, a longtime friend who recalled McCain’s desire in 2008 to ask him to be his running mate, despite their partisan differences.
McCain selected the speakers for his memorial, including former President George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“We shared a fidelity to the ideals for which generations of Americans have marched and fought and sacrificed and given their lives. We considered our political battles a privilege,” Obama said, adding that during his tenure as president McCain would occasionally visit the White House for one-on-one conversations, where their divergent political views were apparent, but “we never doubted we were on the same team.”
Bush said that McCain “was honest, no matter who he offended. Presidents were not spared.” The line drew laughs, as it reflected some of McCain’s criticism of the Bush presidency.
“Back in the day, he could frustrate me, and I know he’d say the same thing about me. But he also made me better.”
The Bushes and the Obamas sat in the front pew next to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and next to them were former Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne, and former Vice President Al Gore.
President Trump was not there — he reportedly was not invited. Nor was he referred to by name. But references to his brand of politics were apparent, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Bush said that McCain “respected the dignity in every life. A dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators.”
McCain’s daughter, Meghan, was more direct.
“We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness — the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly,” she said.
“America does not boast, because she has no need to. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was already great.”
Her emotional tribute honored her father’s career and service, but also his duty to his children.
“I know who he was. I know what defined him. I got to see it every day of my life,” she said.
Members of the Trump administration were at the service, including his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner.
The diversity of political stripes extended beyond Washington. Warren Beatty, a longtime liberal activist and friend of McCain’s, was an honorary pallbearer, and sat next to former Vice President Joseph Biden and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Other presidential nominees who, like McCain, didn’t win their White House bids also were present, including Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry and Mitt Romney, in addition to Hillary Clinton. Not present, though, was Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate in 2008.
The three-hour service, carefully planned by McCain’s family and reportedly by McCain himself, included a moving renditions of “Danny Boy,” sung by Renee Fleming, as well as some of his favorite hymns: “America the Beautiful,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Amazing Grace.” The Cathedral Choir, the United States Naval Academy Glee Club and the United States Navy Band Brass Ensemble performed.
McCain’s influence also was reflected by the presence of a host of media and Hollywood figures, including Harry Sloan, the former MGM CEO and partner in Platinum Eagle Acquisition Corp., along with his wife Florence. They were delegates to the 2008 Republican National Convention and worked on his campaign.
Also there were CBS’s Leslie Moonves and Julie Chen, former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, commentator S.E. Cupp, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and journalist Carl Bernstein. Joy Behar and Sunny Hostin, co-hosts with Meghan McCain on “The View,” also attended.
Earlier in the morning, McCain’s casket was brought in a procession from the Capitol to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for a brief ceremony. McCain said that he frequently visited the memorial to remember fellow soldiers who died in the war.
In his tribute, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, now 95, recalled first meeting McCain at the White House in 1973. At the time, McCain had just returned after years in captivity in Hanoi, where he was beaten and tortured.
“In the McCain family, national service was its own reward,” he said. “The did not allow for special treatment. I thought of that, when his Vietnamese captives, during the final phase of negotiations, offered to release John so that he could return with me on the official plane that had brought me to Hanoi.
“Against all of my instinct, I thanked him for the offer but refused it,” Kissinger recalled. “I wondered what John would say when we finally met. His greeting was both self effacing and moving. ‘Thank you for saving my honor.'”
The cathedral, one of Washington’s most beautiful spaces, is the final resting spot of Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, and also was the scene of a memorial following 9/11, an event that brought together Bush and almost all of his living predecessors.
McCain will be laid to rest on Sunday at a private service and burial in Annapolis, Md.
In his tribute, Obama said that he was surprised when McCain called him several months ago to ask him to speak at his memorial. He said, though, that McCain liked being unpredictable and non-conforming, as well as irreverent.
“After all, what better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience?” Obama quipped.
After the funeral, Lieberman told Variety, that the service “was just the way John wanted it. As he saw the end of his life coming, he actually worked with his family to organize this event.”
“When you think about what poured out naturally after his death, with all of the celebrations, remembrances of the things we liked. He was honest. He was patriotic. He was bipartisan. He was very civil toward his opponents. He fought like a competitor, but ultimately he really did put the country first, and reminds us that we can be better than we’ve been.”
Asked how hopeful that will happen, Lieberman replied, “You know, I’m hopeful, and I am going to keep praying.”