Breaking News Emails
Barack Obama told a hushed congregation at the Washington National Cathedral on Saturday that John McCain, his former Senate colleague whom he defeated for the presidency in 2008, always called on his fellow countrymen to be bigger, and better, than the "small and mean and petty" politics being practiced in Washington today.
It was one of several not-so-subtle swipes at the current occupant of the White House made by eulogists at McCain's memorial service. Obama followed remarks by McCain's daughter, Meghan McCain, and former President George W. Bush that drew a sharp contrast between the current political moment and McCain's enduring values of service and bipartisanship.
“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," 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. He called on us to be better than that.”
Obama, a Democrat, said that he often disagreed with the late Arizona Republican, but "we never doubted we were on the same team." Their shared ideals about the importance of serving the American people have been challenged recently, the former president said.
Obama did not mention President Donald Trump by name, and neither did anyone else who spoke at the service. Meghan McCain came the closest in an emotional tribute that focused on her father's legacy in the military, in public service and in a family steeped in both.
"We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness," Meghan McCain said. "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 lived lives of comfort and privilege."
Later in the ceremony, she defined the America of John McCain as one that is "generous, welcoming and bold."
“The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great," she said to thundering applause.
Trump was notably absent on Saturday after he was asked to stay away from all events during McCain's five-day, cross-country procession. Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump, as well as her husband, Jared Kushner, both advisers to the president, were in attendance.
Bush, who won the 2000 GOP nomination over McCain, remembered him as often being the moral voice of the Senate.
"He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators," Bush said. "Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He 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."
Other notable figures from both sides of the aisle also contributed to Saturday's ceremony, and much of the focus was on McCain's ability to unite the country — even in death.
"His death seems to have reminded the American people that these values are what makes us a great nation, not the tribal partisanship and personal attack politics that have recently characterized our life," said former Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a close friend of McCain's whom McCain considered as a possible running mate in 2008, even though Lieberman was a Democrat.
"This week’s celebration of the life and values and patriotism of this hero, I think, have taken our country above all that. In a way it’s the last great gift that John McCain gave America," Leiberman said.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger echoed that sentiment, speaking of how his path crossed with McCain during the Vietnam War.
"None of us will ever forget how even in his parting, John has bestowed on us a much-needed moment of unity and a renewed faith in the possibilities of America," Kissinger said. "Henceforth America’s honor is ours to sustain."
Of particular note on Saturday was McCain’s decision to have a Russian, Vladimir Kara-Murza, act as a pallbearer. Kara-Murza, who was twice poisoned while in Russia, is a well-known critic of the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Saturday's procession paused at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where McCain's wife, Cindy, laid a ceremonial wreath. She was escorted to the site by White House chief of staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
A handful of Trump administration officials were in attendance, including national security adviser John Bolton, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
In the days leading up to the ceremony, Trump ignored repeated questions from reporters on whether he had any thoughts on the legacy of the late senator.
The White House lowered its flag to half-staff Saturday night after McCain's death but raised it to full-staff Monday morning, sparking outrage from veterans groups and lawmakers.
Later in the day, Trump said in a statement that he had signed a proclamation to keep the flag at half-staff through until McCain's funeral service.
Saturday's memorial service included a few moments of levity. Obama spoke of receiving a call from his onetime rival to speak at his funeral, which Obama called "a precious and singular honor."
“It showed his irreverence, his sense of humor — a little bit of a mischievous streak. After all, what better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience?” Obama said to roars of laughter. “And most of all it showed a largeness of spirit, an ability to see past differences in search of common ground.”