John McCain: bipartisan leaders gather to say farewell to senator

David Smith in Washington

The death of John McCain, one of the most influential US politicians of the past century never to win the White House, brought leaders from both parties together on Saturday at the National Cathedral in Washington for his memorial service.

The US Senator, a Republican who had represented Arizona for decades and was known as a war hero and a political maverick, died last Saturday of brain cancer, just short of his 82nd birthday.

On Saturday morning, a day after he was afforded the rare honor of lying in state at the US Capitol, politicians and supporters of all stripes gathered to say farewell, in the kind of bipartisan gathering McCain was known for championing. The most glaring absence was Donald Trump, who was missing after being expressly barred by McCain before his death from being invited to his funeral events. As hundreds filed into the church, Barack Obama and George W Bush prepared to give eulogies.

Obama was accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and Bush by his wife, Laura. Hillary and Bill Clinton were there, a day after they attended Aretha Franklin’s funeral in Detroit.

John McCain’s memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Democratic vice-president Joe Biden followed McCain’s flag-draped casket into the cathedral and then took his pew - in between film star Warren Beaty and billionaire and former New York Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Henry Kissinger sat behind chief of staff John Kelly. The president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law Jared Kushner attended.

McCain’s widow, Cindy, arrived at the cathedral after earlier placing a wreath at the Vietnam War memorial in the capital. McCain was shot down as a Navy pilot in that war and was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for more than five years.

The previous day, a service in the US Capitol, was attended by the vice-president, Mike Pence, and speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

“Though the highest office eluded him, he attained what is far more enduring: the abiding affection of his fellow citizens, and an example down the generations,” said Ryan.

McCain ran for president twice – in 2000, when he lost the Republican primary to George W Bush, and in 2008, when he was defeated by Barack Obama. But Congress, though less celebrated in movies and TV, is where much of the nation’s business gets done, and McCain was among its giants.

On Friday his family attended the commemorative service where McCain’s mother, 106-year-old Roberta, clutched the hand of his daughter, 33-year-old Meghan, who sobbed with raw grief.

There was the awkward spectacle of the McCain family listening to Donald Trump’s deputy, Mike Pence, deliver a tribute, with everyone in the rotunda keenly aware of McCain and Trump’s mutual enmity.

Pence insisted: “As the president said yesterday, we respect his service to the country.”

Mike Pence: ‘John McCain served his country honorably’. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

In brief remarks, he added: “We gather here today to honor an American patriot who served a cause greater than himself … We will ever remember that John McCain served his country, and John McCain served his country honorably.”

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, recalled McCain’s “signature cackle” and “that John McCain glint in his eye”.

Ryan added: “So I think ahead now. I think ahead to the day when I – like so many – will bring my own children, and perhaps their children, to that hallowed lawn in Annapolis.

“I think about that. I think about what I might say to them: ‘This is one of the bravest souls our country ever produced’.”

Cindy McCain approached her husband’s flag-draped casket, bowed her head, clasped her hands and mouthed a prayer. Then his mother was wheeled to his side and silently crossed herself.

McCain would have appreciated the setting at the centre of the marbled corridors of power where, for nearly 35 years, he worked with members of both parties and enjoyed an often cordial, sometimes prickly relationship with journalists.

At 10.53am his casket was solemnly placed on a catafalque, draped in black, in the rotunda under the vast dome of the US Capitol, surrounded by ornate carvings, gold-framed epic historical paintings and statues including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

McCain is the 31st person to lie in state in the US Capitol, a rare distinction reserved for military personnel or elected officials. Four private citizens have lain in honour, including Billy Graham, the Christian evangelist, in February, and Rosa Parks, the civil rights leader, in 2005.

Cindy McCain, John McCain’s widow, pays her respects at her husband’s casket inside the US Capitol rotunda in Washington DC, 31 August 2018. Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/AFP/Getty Images

A graduate of the US Naval Academy, McCain served as a naval aviator for 22 years and spent five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam’s “Hanoi Hilton”. He served in the House of Representatives from 1983-1987 representing the first district of Arizona. In 1986, he was elected to the Senate, serving as chairman of the armed services committee at the time of his death last Saturday.

McCain was the Republican party’s 2008 nominee for president, losing to Barack Obama, and later said he regretted choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Palin, the former governor of Alaska, was not present on Friday and has reportedly not been invited to any of the commemorative services McCain will be buried at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, on Sunday.


There was heavy rain outside, lending an atmosphere of, simultaneously, drama and solemnity to the occasion.

  • This article was amended on 1 September 2018 to correct the name of George W Bush’s wife.