Washington Bids Farewell To John McCain

Washington said farewell to John McCain today in a service that both remembered his spirit and his heroism, and stands as a sharp rebuke to what politics has been reduced to in America today.

Official Washington said its farewell to Senator John McCain this morning in a funeral service at Washington National Cathedral that may as well have been a State Funeral for a former President, the one office that McCain sought twice unsuccessfully. True to the spirit of the man being remembered, the service was filled with humor, and no small degree of defiance in the face of a contemporary political culture that seems to stand against the things McCain believed in:

The memorial of Sen. John McCain doubled as a remembrance of the late Arizona Republican and a rebuke of President Donald Trump, whom speakers implicitly cast as everything the late senator was not.

On a day when Washington politicians tried to put partisanship aside to commemorate McCain, the contrast between the 2008 GOP presidential nominee and the party’s newest standard-bearer was evident.

McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain, delivered the sharpest reproach of the president in an emotional address that kicked off a series of speeches from some of the nation’s biggest names, including former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Though White House senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner attended Saturday’s service inside the Washington National Cathedral, the president himself was not welcome. Nor were his politics.

“I am here before you today saying the words I have never wanted to say, giving the speech I have never wanted to give, feeling the loss I have never wanted to feel,” Meghan McCain began, sniffling as she prepared to say her next words. “My father is gone.”

Meghan McCain acknowledged the many titles that have preceded her father’s name: Navy sailor, aviator, prisoner of war, war hero, congressman, senator and Republican presidential nominee. But she said they pale in comparison to his role as a loving father who was truly great.

“We gather 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, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served,” she said, making an unmistakable comparison to the sitting president, a man who mocked her father’s capture despite receiving four medical deferments while in college to avoid service.


Meghan McCain’s remarks represented by far the most extraordinary rebuke of Trump on Saturday. But tributes from speakers, from Bush to Obama to former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), all decried the president’s politics.

Bush remembered McCain, whom he defeated in the 2000 Republican presidential primary, as more than anything “a man with a code” who lived by virtues that brought strength and purpose to his life and his country.

“He was honest, no matter whom it offended. Presidents were not spared,” Bush recalled. “He was honorable, always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings. He loved freedom with the passion of a man who knew its absence. He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators.”

“Perhaps above all,” Bush continued, “John detested the abuse of power, could not abide bigots and swaggering despots. There was something deep inside him that made him stand up for the little guy, to speak for forgotten people in forgotten places.”

Obama recalled meeting privately with McCain at the White House on several occasions. Yes, they disagreed, he said, but they also laughed with and learned from each other.

“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty. Trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage, it’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is born of fear,” Obama said. “John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.”

“What better way to honor John McCain’s life of service than as best we can follow his example?” Obama asked. “That’s perhaps how we honor him best, by recognizing that there are some things bigger than party or ambition or money or fame or power, that there are some things that are worth risking everything for: principles that are eternal, truths that are abiding. At his best, John showed us what that means.”

John McCain’s casket, draped in an American flag, lay in front of the dais at the center of the packed cathedral, where a choir led the congregation in the singing of hymns between tributes and other readings.

The casket arrived at the cathedral earlier Saturday morning, as family, friends, current and former government officials and international leaders filled in to pay tribute to the Arizona Republican before he is laid to rest on Sunday.

McCain’s widow, Cindy, laid a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for her husband, who was captured and held as a prisoner of war, before the funeral.

Saturday’s service was the most high-profile event of a week-long series commemorating McCain’s storied life, a six-term senator who also served in the House after serving his country in the Navy.

The senator lay in state in the Arizona Capitol on Wednesday and the U.S. Capitol on Friday. A memorial service was held in between at the North Phoenix Baptist Church on Thursday, featuring tributes from former Vice President Joe Biden and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Saturday’s memorial service also featured tributes from Lieberman and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Power players from both parties, including former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney were also in attendance.

Additional attendees include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, White House chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton.

Among the people who spoke or participated in the funeral service today were friends such as Senator Lindsey Graham and former Senator Joe Lieberman, McCain’s sons John McCain IV and James, his daughter Sidney, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and, of course, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Before any of them spoke, though, it was McCain’s daughter Meghan who brought down the house with an emotional and powerful eulogy that embodied her father’s spirit as much as anything else we heard today:

Meghan McCain, John McCain’s daughter, delivered a powerful speech at her father’s funeral on Saturday, and in a reproach of President Trump, said the “America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because it was always great.”

Ms. McCain’s speech contrasted her father’s legacy with the “opportunistic appropriation” and “cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly.”

“He was a fire that burned bright,” Ms. McCain said. “A few have resented that fire for the light it cast upon them, for the truth it revealed about their character, but my father never cared what they thought. And even that small number still have the opportunity, as long as they draw breath, to live up to the example of John McCain.”

Ms. McCain’s speech, and her rebuke, came as Mr. Trump, wearing golf gear, a white shirt and a “Make America Great Again” hat, left the White House for his Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va. Mr. Trump, who was not invited to Mr. McCain’s funeral, has long mocked and condemned the senator.

Mr. Trump had spent parts of the morning before Mr. McCain’s funeral tweeting his anger about the investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia during the 2016 election and highlighting quotes from a mutual critic of the F.B.I. and Justice Department.

During Ms. McCain’s speech, she struggled to hold back tears, but appeared to make good on what she said was her father’s desire for her to show the world her toughness in her eulogy.

Ms. McCain described how her father instilled that toughness in her — by making her get back on a horse that had bucked her off, causing her to break her collarbone.

But she also described a man who was sculpted by challenges in the Vietnam War and by the brain cancer that eventually took his life.

She said: “My father was a great man. He was a great warrior. He was a great American. I admired him for all of these things, but I love him because he was a great father.”

You can read the transcript of Meghan McCain’s eulogy here, and watch the video here:

Having lost both of my parents I have some sense of how Meghan and her brothers and sisters are feeling right now, and I know that it’s a feeling that won’t ever quite go away. Losing a parent, regardless of what age it happens at, leaves a hole that never really gets filled, and it’s clear that Ms. McCain is still at the point where the grief is still raw even though the family has likely known for the better part of a year now that this day was coming. I didn’t speak at either of my parent’s funerals, eulogies such as that simply aren’t customary in the Catholic Church and I’m not sure I could have gotten through either one of them even half as well as she did. Nonetheless, the words she delivered were in equal parts those of the loving daughter who misses her father and of the protective daughter who has been outspoken about the current President and his comments about her father for some time now thanks to her position as a host on The View. It was a combination of the two that we got to see today, and even though she did not mention the current President by name it is clear who she was talking about, and the message no doubt was received by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner and other members of the Administration who were present in the National Cathedral today.

The other notable event, of course, was the twin eulogies from the two men who defeated him in his quest for the brass ring of American politics:

WASHINGTON — He drove them crazy. He berated them on the way to the White House and badgered them once they got there. He stood by them when he thought they were right and tore at their heels when he was convinced they were wrong. And when it came time to depart this world, John McCain wanted them to tell his story.

Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the two men who thwarted Mr. McCain’s ambitions to become commander in chief, stood one after the other before the nation’s elite at Washington National Cathedral on Saturday to honor the man they beat, extolling him as a one-of-a-kind figure the likes of which will not be seen again anytime soon.

That they were asked, and not the current president, spoke volumes about the man and the moment. And while neither former president made explicit mention of President Trump, who left the White House as the service began to go to his golf course in Virginia — uninvited and unwelcome at the funeral — their tributes to the senator could hardly be heard without the unspoken contrast to the current occupant of the Oval Office.

“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s a politics that pretends to be brave, but in fact is born of fear. John called us to be bigger than that. He called us to be better than that.”

Mr. Bush praised Mr. McCain for his “courage and decency,” an exemplar of the grand American values of standing up for the oppressed and against bigotry. “John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder — we are better than this, America is better than this,” Mr. Bush said.

While Mr. Trump was absent, political figures from both parties made their way to the cathedral on a dreary, overcast and humid day in the capital. They came to bid farewell to John Sidney McCain III, son and grandson of admirals, naval aviator, tortured prisoner, congressman, six-term senator, two-time presidential candidate, patriot, maverick, reformer, warrior, curmudgeon, father, husband and finally, in death, American icon.

They also came to mourn an ideal that he represented and a town that he once dominated with verve and humor and memorable flashes of temper. Like Mr. McCain, many of the Republicans who attended have found themselves deeply discouraged by their own party’s president. But unlike Mr. McCain, most of them do not say so out loud, for fear of rage by Twitter or retribution by the base. It was almost as if it were a meeting of Washington’s political underground, if the underground met in a grand cathedral with 10,650 organ pipes.


Mr. Obama admitted to a “certain surprise” when Mr. McCain called to ask him to speak at his service, but said he came to realize it demonstrated the senator’s iconoclastic spirit, disdain for self-pity, largeness of spirit and mischievous streak.

“After all,” Mr. Obama said, “what better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience?”

The former president recalled the time during their 2008 contest when Mr. McCain corrected a supporter who called Mr. Obama an Arab. “I was grateful, I wasn’t surprised,” Mr. Obama said. “I never saw John treat anyone differently because of their race, or religion, or gender.”

That did not mean they agreed all the time, he noted. “It’s no secret it’s been mentioned that he had a temper,” Mr. Obama said, “and when it flared up, it was a wonder to behold — his jaw grinding, his face reddening, his eyes boring a hole right through you. Not that I ever experienced this firsthand, mind you.”

But he said that every so often while he was president, Mr. McCain would come to the White House “just to sit and talk” about their disagreements. “We never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other man’s patriotism, or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Bush defeated Mr. McCain for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 after an acrid primary campaign, and the two clashed regularly over the next eight years, perhaps most notably over the issue of torture. Mr. McCain forced Mr. Bush to accept legislation intended to bar the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods.

But when the war in Iraq went badly and Mr. Bush was abandoned by virtually everyone, Mr. McCain stuck with him and supported a surge of troops and strategy shift that helped turn the war around.

“McCain, if he was not for you on something, would be straightforward and wouldn’t be for you,” said Karl Rove, the longtime adviser to Mr. Bush. “But if he was for you, like on the surge or immigration reform, he was for you. There were no permanent enemies when it came to his job as a legislator.”

You can read President Bush’s eulogy at the link and watch the video here:

And you can read President Obama’s eulogy at the link and watch the video here:

The words of the former Presidents largely speak for themselves, of course, but they were both notable for the fact that they were delivered by the two men that defeated McCain in his bids for the Presidency in 2000 and 2008 respectively. While we don’t know the circumstances under which President Bush came to be one of McCain’s eulogists, it was reported earlier this week that McCain had personally contacted Obama earlier this year as he was planning his funeral and asked the former President if he would deliver a eulogy. In both his remarks today and his earlier comments, Obama did say that he was somewhat surprised at the request but that he readily accepted the request (really, when a man who knows he’s dying asks you to deliver a eulogy what else can you say?). Both men hit on similar themes in their remarks, making note of McCain’s service to his country and the manner in which he seldom let differences of opinion affect personal relationships. Both men also made reference to the many differences and disagreements they had with the Senator during their Presidents, but they also referenced times of agreement and camaraderie that one doesn’t hear about in Washington very much anymore. President Obama, for example, revealed that he and McCain would often meet together in the evenings at the White House, not to talk about specific legislation or things they disagreed about but to talk about the state of the world and about family. Much like Meghan McCain, both speeches drew a sharp contrast with the current occupant of the White House without once mentioning his name.

The entire event, which lasted for well over two hours in a venue that has previously seen the funerals of Presidents, including services in 2004 for President Reagan and in 2006 for President Ford, was in many ways the kind of farewell that fit the character of the man being remembered. As McCain had done throughout his Senate and Congressional career, the ceremony marked the kind the bipartisanship that he tried to live up to throughout his time in office, That alone was remarkable given the extent to which that spirit has seemingly been forgotten in a Washingon mired in the politics of hyperpartisanship and extremism, and the extent to which it was noted in the post-event discussions on cable news is a sad reminder of the fact that McCain’s passing represents that there is one less voice against that form of politics today. As I’ve said several times in the week since McCain passed away, we need to find a way to get back to a world where the kind of bipartisanship we saw today isn’t remarkable but commonplace. Granted, there will always be issues we disagree about, and often strongly, but there are just as many things that we can still agree about. I was often critical of Senator McCain, but I could at least respect him. The extent to which that’s no longer true of the people we disagree with is an unfortunate side effect of the world we live in today. Through his funeral service today, we got a glimpse of a time when it wasn’t always like this. We need to rediscover that America, not just in Washington but in at home, in our discussions with others, and in our relationship with the world.

Previous Posts:

Senator John McCain Dies At 81
John McCain’s Finest Hour
John McCain Was A Strong Moral Voice Against Torture, America Should Be Grateful
The Lessons In John McCain’s Final Words
Joe Biden, John McCain, And The State Of American Politics

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. matt bernius says:

    One part of GW’s eulogy specifically stood out to me:

    Those in political power were not exempt. At various points throughout his long career, John confronted policies and practices that he believed were unworthy of his country. To the face of those in authority, John McCain would insist: We are better than this. America is better than this.

    Bush would invoke the “we are better than this” again at the end of the speech. McCain used th at very please multiple times to attack the Bush torture policies. I can’t think Bush invoking them now wasa complete coincidence (or that he would have forgotten when he last heard them).

  2. James Pearce says:

    That moment where George W Bush handed a piece of candy to Michelle Obama was heartwarming. I couldn’t stand him as president, but as an ex-president, he’s pretty dang cool.

    (Adding the National Cathedral to my “must-see” list for when I go out to DC in the fall.)

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    Imagine being a 72 year-old man, president of the United States, but such a malignant, narcissistic creep you are actively shunned in your own capital.

  4. @James Pearce:

    It’s definitely worth a visit. Take the tour if you have the time for it. I did that once when family was in town and they take you into parts of the building that most people never see. Also, you can take an elevator to the top of the bell tower and get a great view of the downtown area (weather permitting of course)

  5. @Michael Reynolds:

    He spent most of the morning tweeting then hit the golf course in Virginia.

  6. CSK says:

    The Trumpkins–who hated McCain anyway because he was a RINO liberal Commie–are accusing McCain of being a bitter, vindictive old man for barring Trump from his funeral. But I can’t offhand think of anyone who embodies petty, bitter vindictiveness better than that pathetic failed social climber Trump.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    (really, when a man who knows he’s dying asks you to deliver a eulogy what else can you say?)


    Seriously, I have been asked “Do you want to speak” at several funerals (never by the individual who was dying) and have always refused. Partly because I’m not sure I could get thru it, but mostly because, what can I possibly add to a life already lived? Those who knew the individual in question don’t need me to tell them what s/he was like, and those who didn’t never will know.

    After the last funeral I went to, I’m not sure I will ever go to another. I know that funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living, but I get absolutely nothing out of them, except possibly some self flagellation. I know that my presence may give some comfort to the family of the deceased, but… They are mostly ridiculous affairs full of myth and fable to this atheist. Why would I participate in a lie?

    I have just gotten to the point where I tire of the whole charade. I have decided to give my body to medicine. My family will be spared the expense of disposing of my body, and if any of them care to they can hold a memorial with out me or my body, or just wait for the med school memorial at the end of semester. And in the meanwhile, a little more good may come out of this tired broken down used up jalopy of a body.

  8. MBunge says:

    John McCain was eulogized by two former Presidents. One is arguably a war criminal who won the White House by smearing and sliming John McCain in truly despicable ways. The other was elected at least in part because many of the people now praising John McCain’s greatness decided none of that stuff really mattered.

    Yes, this event does pretty much sum up the state of America’s political elite.


  9. MBunge says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It amuses me to remember the Michael Reynolds of just a few years ago and what he would have thought the esteem of DC society was worth.


  10. James Pearce says:

    @One American:

    pretty sure she can afford to buy her own candy, but yes, sweet like the smirk on her face.

    I’ve nearly forgiven Bush for all the stuff he did that made me mad, you know, the wars, the Great Recession, all that nonsense. There’s still some resentment, but damn it…I kind of like him now.

    Maybe you’ll forgive Mrs. Obama’s smirk someday.

    @Doug Mataconis:

    It’s definitely worth a visit. Take the tour if you have the time for it.

    I’ll look into it, for sure. I heard it has a Darth Vader gargoyle, and as dumb as it sounds…I have to see that.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    I said:

    Imagine being a 72 year-old man, president of the United States, but such a malignant, narcissistic creep you are actively shunned in your own capital.

    You responded:

    It amuses me to remember the Michael Reynolds of just a few years ago and what he would have thought the esteem of DC society was worth.

    It’s not about the ‘esteem’ genius, or the value of same, it’s about the malignancy. You want to play Trump as victim. The president of the United States: victim. I enjoy the fact that even you know he’s weak.

    Don’t play misdirection games with me, you don’t have the chops.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @One American:
    Campaign Chair: Felon
    Deputy Campaign Chair: Felon
    Foreign Policy Advisor: Felon
    National Security Advisor: Felon

    That’s what we have so far. Coming soon: Don Jr., Roger Stone, possibly Pence, Ivanka and Jared.

    And the investigation is actually just 15 months old. Mueller was appointed in May 2017 after Trump stupidly, corruptly, and against the advice of his own lawyers, fired Comey. But since you’re impatient, I know you’ll join me in calling for Trump to cease the obstruction of justice and do his job. Right?

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Anyone who feels the necessity to assert their American-ness in their nym has to be a Russian troll. I think he got his English as a 2nd language instruction at trump university.

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: In the eyes of One American /Lala Land Trump IS doing his job–he’s making liberals upset. Maybe Pearce is right about the reacting to it less part of his current schtick.

  15. teve tory says:
  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @teve tory: Why am I not surprised? Wait… I remember now, it’s because I don’t think that Trump is an aberration, he’s simply playing to what he sees the base to be. Trump is basically the GOP minus the dog whistles, and now that he’s broken the pattern, he’s freed everyone to be their unvarnished selves–and they don’t clean up so good!

  17. CSK says:


    There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that Trump wants more than the “esteem of DC society,” unless it’s the esteem of Manhattan society. This is the motivating force of his existence: rage against the “elites” who scorned him because he’s a crude, bumbling oaf of a poseur.

    If you don’t understand this about Trump–that he’s a rage-filled arriviste who’ll never get over being scorned by the haute monde–then you’ll never understand Trump.

  18. dmichael says:

    As a coda to the posts and comments about John McCain, I recommend this: https://weeklysift.com/2018/09/03/john-mccain-shot-liberty-valance/

  19. matt bernius says:

    That wasa great read. Thanks.