A light rain that turned heavy fell as body bearers from various branches of the military began the solemn procession up the stairs of the Capitol to rest the casket on the stand where McCain will lie in state until Saturday morning.
The rotunda ceremony brought together dozens of McCain’s family and friends, and lawmakers and former colleagues from both parties, along with military leaders and foreign dignitaries, all of whom packed in around the periphery. At the center was McCain’s flag-draped coffin, resting atop the same wooden platform, called a catafalque, that was built for President Abraham Lincoln’s memorial in 1865.
Vice President Mike Pence represented the Trump administration at the ceremony, and sat next to McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain. Trump was not invited to attend McCain’s memorial services, something that was reportedly a wish of McCain as he worked with aides to plan for ceremonies after his passing.
“The president asked me to be here on behalf of a grateful nation,” Pence said. He praised McCain’s “iron will” and determination to work on behalf of the greater good of the country. McCain, he said, was among “those who summon idealism from a cynical age.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan mentioned McCain’s legacy as a political maverick, his earthy qualities and penchant for swearing, and his skill at the give-and-take needed to pass legislation. McCain was “a man of conviction, a man of state,” Ryan said. Noting his military career and the five and a half years McCain endured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Ryan observed: “This is one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hailed McCain for representing “America’s fighting spirit.” McConnell, Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer helped lay a wreaths at McCain’s casket.
Television cameras covering the speakers also captured a touching image of McCain daughter Meghan McCain, a co-host of ABC’s “The View,” holding the hand of her 106-year-old grandmother, Roberta McCain. Both women dabbed away tears as they listened to the eulogies. Members of Congress and a slew of Washington heavyweights surrounded the family. In closing, Senate Chaplain Barry Black called McCain “a drum major for courage, truth and justice.”
Cindy McCain and Lindsey Graham, one of McCain’s closest friends in the Senate, later visited the Senate chamber and to McCain’s desk, draped in black with a bouquet of white flowers on top.
Some of the most moving moments came after the ceremony, as the guests each paid their last respects at McCain’s casket. Not even a whisper could be heard among those gathered as they filed by, only the sound of clicking camera shutters from the press area.
McCain’s wish was that the memorials would reflect his political career: That of a patriotic public servant who often put country before party, willing to reach out and work with lawmakers across the aisle.
Pelosi helped Sam Johnson, 87, the Texas Republican congressman who was a prisoner of war with McCain in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, have a moment at the casket for his farewell.
McCain’s brother, Joe, saluted as he stood before the coffin.
Former senator John Warner escorted another colleague, former Senator Carl Levin, around the Rotunda as they paid their respects. Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor and secretary of Homeland Security, gave two taps on McCain’s casket, and Joseph Lieberman, the former senator and a close friend, kissed his hand and placed it on the coffin.
McCain is the 31st person to receive the honor in the Capitol Rotunda, a list that includes former presidents, extraordinary lawmakers and other Americans. The Reverend Billy Graham lied in honor at the Capitol in March.
Among those from Hollywood who attended the ceremony were Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. They each touched McCain’s casket for a moment before walking out of the Rotunda. Even with divergent political views, Beatty was a longtime friend, and will serve as a pallbearer at a memorial service on Saturday at the Washington National Cathedral.
Others at the ceremony included a host of other former colleagues of McCain’s, including Chris Dodd, Russ Feingold and Sam Brownback.
Outside, mourners lined up for two blocks along First Street for the chance to file through the Rotunda, many of them using umbrellas to shade themselves from the hot sun.
Lucy Swingle of Virginia Beach, and her best friend, Karla Boughey, of Richmond, said that they have divergent political views but were determined to show up at the Capitol for the viewing. “We agree on John McCain, that he was a wonderful man,” Swingle said.
“I am a liberal Democrat, but I respect John McCain, his individuality, and how he stood up for what he believed was right, always, not what was the party line,” she said.
Boughey said she was a “realistic Republican,” and was heavily involved in McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“He really stood for what I believe in politically and every day life. He was a good man,” Boughey said.
She said that as she passed by his casket, what went through her mind was that she “can’t believe he is gone.”
She said that she also thought of “what he probably went through with all of the other POWs.”
Boughey, who is executive director of the Virginia Veterans Services Foundation in Richmond, Va., said that she has met a number of POWs from across the country, and “I don’t think Americans really realize until you hear these stories and you see that these people are alive, and you sit there and you go, ‘Wow.’…How do they come back and do what they did after being tortured and beaten, and they took care of each other and they learned.”
“We don’t have any idea of how they survived, and they came back to do such great things. All of them.”
Swingle wore a POW bracelet she got in 1969 when she was 10 years old, and it bears the name of Larry Stevens, taken prisoner on Feb. 14 of that year.
“I think he’d be really proud, to see all these people out here, waiting in line to pay their respects,” she said. Given the political divisions in the country, coming out to the Capitol “has been healing,” she added.
On Saturday, a procession will lead McCain’s casket to a ceremony in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the senator said he frequently visited to pay tribute. Then the procession will go to a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral, where former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush are scheduled to deliver remarks.