For 35 years, John McCain made the trip between Phoenix and Washington, across the desert and the plains, the factory towns of the Midwest. Finally, there was the Pentagon, sitting squat on the west bank of the Potomac, home to the generals who had sent McCain to fight in Vietnam. He was on the other side of the river, coming to Washington as a U.S. representative in 1983, then moving to the other side of the Capitol, as a U.S. senator, in 1987. He remained a senator for 31 years, until his death this week from brain cancer.
McCain took his final journey from Phoenix to Washington on Thursday, in a coffin draped with the American flag. There had been a service at the North Phoenix Baptist Church that had been a testimony to the fullness of his life, both in Washington and Arizona. The speakers included former Vice President Joe Biden, who is a Democrat and a longtime friend, and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
“Senator McCain, it has been a true honor to call you friend,” Fitzgerald said. Biden, who had lost his own son to the same form of brain cancer that had taken McCain, cried, as the late senator’s 106-year-old mother, Roberta McCain, looked on. Then everyone went out into the merciless Arizona sun as John McCain prepared to fly back East one last time.
On Friday, McCain lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, an honor that had been afforded to just 30 other Americans in history. As dignitaries foreign and domestic began to fill the chamber, Sen. Patrick Leahy approached the catafalque, or pedestal, on which McCain’s coffin would sit both during the service and the public viewing that was to follow. The 78-year-old Democrat from Vermont placed his right hand on the black cloth covering the same pine slats that supported the coffin of Abraham Lincoln.
Aside from clergy, the only speakers at Friday’s ceremony in the rotunda were fellow Republicans. And there was not, in their words carefully crafted by speechwriters, any of the radiant warmth that had been evident the day before in Arizona. That’s because McCain’s legacy as a member of his own party remains complex, after his last significant act as a legislator, the dramatic late-night, Senate-floor thumbs-down gesture that helped sink the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act like the slapped-together raft that it was. And to the end, he remained an unsparing critic of Donald Trump, even as other Republicans learned to deal with questions from reporters about the president’s comportment by simply walking away. McCain, who had been tortured by the North Vietnamese, was not frightened by reporters, and he was not frightened by tweets. But he knew that America was in a frightening moment, and he was not afraid to say so.
“I will miss a dear friend,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Days before, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had proposed changing the name of the Russell Senate Office Building to honor McCain — substituting a (sometimes maverick) Republican for a (segregationist) Democrat, Richard Russell of Georgia. Google Maps complied almost instantly (if temporarily), but Washington does not move quite as quickly as Silicon Valley, and McConnell is well aware of Trump’s disdain for McCain. Though Democrats and Republicans both support the effort, it has been condemned to needless deliberation by McConnell. The Kentuckian’s effusive praise of McCain’s vision of, and for, America was not especially convincing. It was evident that none of the McCain family and friends seated behind the phlegmatic majority leader seemed especially moved.