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US Politics

Washington elite pay tribute to John McCain while Donald Trump tweets from afar

McCain asked Obama and Bush, a Democrat and a Republican, to deliver eulogies at his service, in a final message to the country about his wish for bipartisanship

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 September, 2018, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 1:48am

Former US presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush gathered with thousands of fellow mourners on Saturday to honour the late John McCain, the long-time Arizona senator and Vietnam war hero whose bids for the White House were dashed by the two men.

McCain’s body, which had lain in state at the US Capitol, arrived at the Washington National Cathedral after his motorcade first stopped at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where his wife, Cindy McCain, laid a wreath to honour those who died in the war.

Members of the military slowly carried McCain’s coffin into the cathedral, past friends and loved ones who have counted among the top power players in US politics for decades. Conspicuously absent was Republican President Donald Trump.

McCain asked Obama and Bush, a Democrat and a Republican, to deliver eulogies at his service, in what was seen as a final message to the country about his wish for bipartisanship.

The statesman and former prisoner of war died August 25 of brain cancer, days shy of his 82nd birthday.

Hailing his friend as “an extraordinary man,” warrior and patriot who embodied what is best in America, Obama said McCain “made us better presidents -- just as he made the Senate better, just as he made the country better.”

He was echoing similar sentiments expressed minutes earlier by Bush, who defeated McCain in a “hard fought” Republican primary battle in 2000, only to see that bitter rivalry melt away into a lasting friendship.

While Bush and Obama hail from different parties, their message Saturday was clear: US politics can and should rise to a higher level with the example set by John McCain.

McCain was conservative, to be sure, “but he did understand that some principles transcend politics, and some values transcend party,” Obama said.

“Our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult,” Obama said.

“It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that.”

Bush said that McCain always recognized that his opponents “were still patriots and human beings.”

Above all, the former president said, “he detested the abuse of power, he could not abide bigots, and swaggering despots.”

The invitation by McCain to Bush to deliver a eulogy was especially striking, given the animosity between the two men over the 2000 GOP primary.

Trump, who feuded with McCain and criticised his war record, spent the morning sending tweets about other subjects.

As he did so, top members of his administration including his daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner, chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton were present at the solemn cathedral service.

McCain’s family had made clear that Trump was not welcome at memorial services in Arizona and Washington or at Sunday’s private burial service in Annapolis, Maryland, at the US Naval Academy. McCain was a member of the Academy’s Class of 1958.

Inside the cathedral, guests included former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, comedian Jay Leno, former Senator Bob Dole and others joined together to honour McCain while a powerful pipe organ and brass ensemble played in the background.

McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain delivered a powerful, tearful eulogy, focused on her pride of her father, but peppered with seeming jabs at Trump.

“We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing,” she said. “Not the cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who lived lives of comfort and privilege. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again. Because America was always great.”

McCain was a leading voice for revamping the country’s immigration, campaign finance and environmental laws. But it was his military service, punctuated by years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, that moulded McCain’s political life.

McCain, who rose to the rank of captain in the US Navy, was shot down over Hanoi while on a bombing mission in 1967.

Held as a prisoner until 1973, McCain was tortured by his North Vietnamese captors in a jail that Americans dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.