John McCain funeral was ‘unmistakeable rebuke’ to Donald Trump

'His overall message was: ‘It doesn’t have to be this shitty’'

Michael D. Shear,Katie Rogers
Thursday 30 August 2018 08:55
John McCain's final words are read out as the Senator is laid to rest

Not long after Senator John McCain learned last summer that he had terminal brain cancer, he began convening meetings every Friday in his Capitol Hill office with a group of trusted aides. The subject was his funeral.

He obsessed over the music, selecting the Irish ballad “Danny Boy” and several patriotic hymns. He choreographed the movement of his coffin from Arizona, his home state, to Washington. And in April, when he knew the end was coming, he began reaching out to Republicans, Democrats and even a Russian dissident with requests that they deliver eulogies and serve as pallbearers.

By the time he died on Saturday, Mr McCain had carefully stage-managed a four-day celebration of his life — but what was also an unmistakable rebuke to President Donald Trump and his agenda. For years, Mr Trump had used Twitter and the presidential bully pulpit to mock and condemn the senator from Arizona. In death, Mr McCain found a way to have the last word, even quietly making it clear through friends that Mr Trump was not welcome at the services.

“I think it’s fair to say that they have a very different view of this country and what this country means, here and abroad,” said Mark Salter, the senator’s long-time friend and co-author who sat with Mr McCain — often with a lump in his throat — during the many discussions about his looming death and how to mark it. “His overall message was: ‘It doesn’t have to be this shitty.’ ”

The series of events honouring Mr McCain are the kind of grandiose spectacle that is normally reserved for someone who became president, not someone who twice failed to do so. Friends said that Mr McCain was surprised by the level of interest in his death even as he planned it.

When advisers suggested that his coffin should lie in state at the Arizona state Capitol building, Mr McCain said he believed the legislature would never approve such a rare honour for him, recalled Rick Davis, who has been at Mr McCain’s side for decades and served as his 2008 campaign chairman.

“Every inch of the way, he underestimated what he thought this would be about,” Mr Davis said.

The week’s memorial events began in Arizona on Wednesday, when his body was taken to the Capitol building, and will continue on Thursday at a service at North Phoenix Baptist Church. The procession will then shift to the nation’s capital, when Mr McCain’s coffin will arrive at an air base outside Washington as the president is holding one of his raucous, campaign-style rallies for supporters in Indiana.

By the weekend, when virtually all of official Washington — Democrats and Republicans alike — gathers at the National Cathedral for a nationally televised farewell, Mr Trump is expected to have retreated to Camp David, where White House aides hope he will contain his anger at the attention being lavished on Mr McCain.

Mr McCain’s closest friends insisted this week that the senator did not harbour a personal grudge towards the president, even at the end. They described him as mostly interested in promoting the cause of bipartisanship and compromise that the “maverick” lawmaker had carefully fashioned into one of the most durable political brands in the last half-century.

“He wanted to reinforce his message that there is more that unites us than separates us,” said Steve Duprey, a businessman from New Hampshire.

But they also acknowledged what has been plain to just about everyone since the two men repeatedly clashed, sometimes in the most personal ways, in recent years: Mr McCain had little respect for the president.

As such, it was perhaps inevitable, they conceded, that a celebration of Mr McCain’s worldview would be viewed as a critique of the president’s.

“Trump has been a catalyst for him to speak more strongly and more vigorously about the need for those things that Trump doesn’t do,” said John Lehman Jr, who served as secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan.

In the spring, Mr McCain began the uncomfortable task of asking people to speak for him after he died. In April, he approached former Presidents Barack Obama and George W Bush, a bipartisan request to the men who defeated him in his quests for the White House.

But prominent politicians will not be the only participants. Pallbearers include friends Mr McCain made over the years, including actor Warren Beatty and Frederick Smith, the founder of FedEx. Larry Fitzgerald, the wide receiver who played for Mr McCain’s beloved Arizona Cardinals was asked to speak at Thursday’s memorial service in Phoenix.

Some received messages by phone, and others were asked in person. Former Vice President Joe Biden was among those summoned to Sedona, when Mr McCain began executing his funeral plans with a newfound urgency.

They spoke for hours before Mr McCain asked Mr Biden to deliver a eulogy at his funeral in Arizona. Mr Biden immediately accepted, said someone close to the vice president, and he will also serve as a pallbearer on Saturday in Washington. Jim Mattis, Mr Trump’s secretary of defence, said that he was among those who had been asked months ago to be a pallbearer at the final event, a private service that will be held on Sunday at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, where Mr McCain will be buried.

Mr McCain’s life in politics was built around his reputation for that kind of trademark bluntness. During the 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns, he spent hours talking with reporters — on the record — sitting on couches in the back of a bus that he strategically named the “Straight Talk Express.”

In death, some of his messages were equally direct. On Monday, Mr Davis read Mr McCain’s final, pull-no-punches remarks to reporters. It escaped no one that Mr McCain was talking about the current president.

“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,” Mr McCain wrote. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”

Other messages during the week have been less explicit. But Mr Trump clearly took offence anyway. After Mr McCain died, the president refused for two days to issue a formal statement praising his service to the nation. And he only ordered the White House flag to fly at half-staff for the week after pressure from his staff, Republican lawmakers and veterans groups.

The New York Times

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