Congressional leaders saluted John McCain Aug. 31 as a model of service in war and peace and “one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced,” in a memorial ceremony at the heart of the political battlefield where he fought for more than three decades.
Then thousands of fellow Americans, who had lined up outside the U.S. Capitol in stifling heat, began filing past in the majestic rotunda to say goodbye as he lay in state.
McCain, the Arizona senator who died Aug. 25 at 81, was remembered as a man who inspired other leaders even as he vexed them with a rebellious streak and impish humor. Absent from the event was Donald Trump, invited to stay away by the family of the senator, who had deep disagreements with the president.
McCain’s service in Vietnam, and his refusal to be released early as a prisoner of war, made the setting of the Aug. 31st service all the more fitting, some said.
“Half a world away, wearing our nation’s uniform, John McCain stood up for every value that this Capitol Building represents,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the crowd of McCain’s family, friends and aides.
“Then, he brought that same patriotism inside its walls -- to advocate for our service members, our veterans and our moral leadership in the world. So it is only right that today, near the end of his long journey, John lies here.”
The Aug. 31st ceremony and public viewing were the midpoint of McCain’s five-day cross-country funeral procession from Arizona, where he and wife Cindy raised their family, through the Capitol where he worked for more than 35 years, to the U.S. Naval Academy cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland — “back where it began,” as he wrote in his recent memoir, “The Restless Wave.”
On Sept. 1, the procession paused by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the way to the formal funeral service at Washington National Cathedral.
In Trump’s absence, Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and other officials represented the administration. Pence at one point said that Trump, who mocked McCain for being captured, “respected his service to the country.”
The stop at the Capitol was designed to spotlight McCain’s outsized role in an institution bursting with big, willful personalities. Just to the north of the rotunda in the semi-darkened Senate, McCain’s desk remained draped in black and topped with a vase of white roses.
After the ceremony, Cindy McCain quietly sat behind her husband’s desk, escorted by his seatmate and close friend, Sen. Lindsey Graham. Graham plucked two of the roses from the vase and gave them to her during that private moment, said two people close to McCain and his family.
Of those who spoke at the Aug. 31st ceremony, fellow Republican McConnell had perhaps the fullest sense of the McCain experience. The two had served in the Senate together since McCain’s 1986 election.
“Depending on the issue, you knew John would either be your staunchest ally or your most-stubborn opponent,” McConnell recalled. “At any moment, he might be preparing an eloquent reflection on human liberty — or a devastating joke, served up with his signature cackle and that John McCain glint in his eye.”
But just about anyone who worked in the Capitol over the past 35 years could attest to McCain’s iron will and what House Speaker Paul Ryan called his “distinct brand of candor.”
“With John, it was never feigned disagreement. The man didn’t feign anything,” Ryan said. “He just relished the fight.”
“This,” Ryan added of McCain, “is one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced.”
Pence, himself a former House member, recalled traveling through Iraq with McCain and falling asleep during a dinner with officials. McCain, nearly 23 years older, told him, “Mike, we’ve got a few more meetings tonight. But why don’t you turn in. You look like you could use some rest.” Members of McCain’s family, seated nearby, smiled.
Cindy McCain was the first to pay respects at her husband’s casket. She bowed over it and appeared to pray. The last of the family to file past was his mother, 106-year-old Roberta McCain. Wheeled up to her son’s flag-draped casket, she crossed herself and was wheeled out.
Others from McCain’s long career paused. Some wept. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reached out with both hands to touch the flag. Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and actors Warren Beatty and Annette Bening also stopped.
Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee that McCain chaired, crossed himself in front of the casket. Then he waited for retired Sens. Carl Levin, a Democrat, and John Warner, a Republican, both of whom chaired the powerful committee at one time. The three left the rotunda arm-in-arm.