Washington D.C., USA : Two former presidents from opposing parties (Barack Obama and George W. Bush) united Saturday to honor US senator John McCain, in a momentous memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC that championed his aspirations of political comity and also rebuked the tribalism and division trafficked by Donald Trump.
As millions tuned in to the nationally televised memorial attended by the breadth of Washington powerbrokers, Trump himself was notably absent, leaving the capital to head to his golf club in Virginia just when eulogies to McCain were being delivered.
And while Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama offered subtle swipes at the current commander in chief, McCain’s daughter Meghan used the words of Trump’s campaign slogan to deliver a searing, unmistakable rebuke.
“The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great,” she said, to extended applause.
Hailing his friend as “an extraordinary man” who embodied what is best in America, Obama said McCain, who battled fiercely but respectfully in the political arena, “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 McCain.
“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,” Obama said of his rough but respectful campaign battles with McCain.
Former US President Barack Obama speaks during a memorial service for late Senator John McCain at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC, US, September 1, 2018. /VCG Photo
So much of today’s politics, “our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult,” he added.
“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.”
McCain’s final public ceremony before his private burial Sunday at the US Naval Academy in nearby Annapolis, Maryland highlighted the warrior politician’s call for healing.
“Perhaps above all John detested the abuse of power, could not abide bigots and swaggering despots,” said Bush, as Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner sat in attendance.
Trump’s Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly were also present.
But it was the gathering of heavyweights from both parties past and present that drew more attention, including Bill and Hillary Clinton; former vice presidents Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden; and former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and John Kerry.
McCain, who died last Saturday at age 81, has been lionized over the past week of emotional commemorations, including his congressional colleagues bestowing him the rare honor of lying in state in the US Capitol on Friday.
Earlier Saturday, the flag-draped casket of McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years, was taken by honor guard from the US Capitol and placed in a black hearse.
During his final years in the Senate, McCain was perhaps the loudest advocate for US military involvement overseas – in Iraq, Syria, Libya and more. That often made him a critic of first Obama and then Trump, and placed him further out of step with the growing isolationism within the GOP.
In October 2017, McCain unleashed some his most blistering criticism of Trump’s “America first” foreign policy approach — without mentioning the president by name — in describing a “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”