It was a sendoff betting a titan of the republic: the flag-draped coffin, the bagpipes, the angelic chorus, the stained-glass windows and gothic pillared arches encasing a sanctuary of some 3,000 notables bidding a final farewell.
But the Saturday morning service for John McCain at the National Cathedral felt also like a memorial for Washington herself — a capital city that under President Donald Trump no longer seems capable, as the late senator was, of balancing fights with friendships, of divorcing disagreement from disrespect, of recognizing the basic difference between opponents and enemies.
With organ notes echoing throughout the cavernous complex before the ceremony, they mingled and shook hands and scanned the room for More Important People as they might at any black-tie affair. Former presidents and vice presidents elicited camera clicks. Senators compared notes with ambassadors. Military officials and government wisemen and media personalities craned their necks. Jared and Ivanka held court with perfect strangers. The commotion outside — police escorts, a procession of black Cadillacs, hundreds of congressmen and senators being bussed in, all with onlookers lining the surrounding sidewalks — made it a quintessentially D.C. occasion, a marriage of exclusivity and self-importance. The only thing missing from this meeting of official Washington was the chief executive of official Washington.
That the president was not invited speaks most evidently to his tormented relationship with McCain, whom Trump infamously mocked for being captured while flying a combat mission in Vietnam. More fundamentally, however, it reflects Trump’s tormented relationship with a town that purports to revere the very virtues he is accused of lacking: courage, prudence, service, conviction, wisdom, humility, forgiveness, honor — and above all, a patriotism that transcends tribalism.
The president cannot be held solely responsible for the fractured nature of modern American politics. McCain’s idyllic Washington — one defined by ferocious battles waged with a mutual goodwill — has long been on life support. For much of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and accelerating through the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the electorate and its representatives were hardened by a combination of class warfare, zero-sum legislating and cultural polarization that invited Trump’s ascent. Having pulled the plug — and smothered the better angels of our nature with a pillow for good measure — the president finds himself at once disinvited from a singular Washington gathering and yet dominating its consciousness.
Indeed, on Saturday, the elephant in the room was the president not in the room.
Though his name was never mentioned, many of the speakers invoked Trump with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It was only 11 minutes into the service when Meghan McCain, launched the opening salvo with an emotional tribute to her father. “We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness — the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never honor the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who lived lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.” Ten minutes later, choking back tears, she added, “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great.”
The applause was at first tepid, and then thunderous, the only of the five speakers to be so interrupted. Each of the eulogists who followed lauded McCain in a manner that — even if unintentionally — contributed to what became a ceaseless rebuke of his party’s current leader.
Former President Barack Obama, who delivered the final set of remarks, recalled the 2008 campaign rally in which McCain scolded one of his supporters for suggesting that Obama wasn’t an American. “I was grateful, but I wasn’t surprised,” Obama said of his former rival. “He saw himself as defending America’s character, not just mine.” Left loudly unsaid: Trump lying for years about Obama’s birthplace in an attempt to delegitimize his presidency. Leaving nothing to interpretation, Obama added later, “So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, seems small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insults and phony controversies and manufactured outage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is borne in fear. John called on us to be bigger than. He called on us to be better than that.”
The other man who bested McCain for the presidency, George W. Bush, could afford to be less direct. It was just few months agothat he (along with brother Jeb) insisted that Trump not attend the funeral of their mother and the former first lady, Barbara Bush. Still, he too got his point across. “John was, above all, a man with a code,” Bush said, one who “lived by a set of public virtues,” “detested the abuse of power” and “could not abide bigots and swaggering despots.” Alluding to one of his own conflicts with McCain — over the use of torture as an interrogation technique — the 43rd president noted, “At various points throughout his long career, John confronted policies and practices that he believed were unworthy of his country. To the face of those in authority, John McCain would insist: We are better than this. America is better than this.”
Former Senator Joe Lieberman recalled McCain’s “far-out idea of having a Democrat as his running mate,” and how the Republican presidential nominee said bipartisan leadership was exactly what the country needed. (His selection of Sarah Palin suggested the GOP needed something else.) Highlighting McCain’s dramatic vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act — the signature accomplishment of his former rival — Lieberman noted, “His vote wasn’t really against that bill, but against the mindless partisanship that has taken control of both of our political parties.” And speaking of McCain’s passion for the “founding values” of America —“freedom, human rights, opportunity, democracy, and equal justice under law” — Lieberman concluded, “His death seems to have reminded the American people that these values are what make us a great nation – not the tribal partisanship and personal attack politics that have recently characterized our life.”
Not that any of this necessarily bothers Trump, who spent the morning tweeting about deep state sedition and Canadian trade exploitation before heading to his northern Virginia golf club. There are, after all, disparate realities — one inside the holy halls of the National Cathedral, where powerful people mourn the death of civility; and another in the surrounding city, where many of those same powerful people drive nails ever deeper into its coffin. And there is a greater juxtaposition still — this one between the virtue-signaling, convention-worshipping insiders of Washington and the mad-as-hell, burn-it-down voters in the provinces. This might not be Donald Trump’s town, but it’s still his country.
The shortest commentary of the day belonged to Henry Kissinger, the famed diplomat, who spoke of McCain’s grace in leading the effort to normalize relations with Vietnam — two decades after being dehumanized there during his five-and-a-half-year stay at the Hanoi Hilton. Noting the “turmoil and civic unrest” that greeted McCain when he finally returned home, Kissinger said the young man nonetheless pursued the ideals of “compassion,” “liberty” and “decency” that defined his nation. “The world will be lonelier without John McCain, his faith in America and his instinctive sense of moral duty,” Kissinger said. “None of us will ever forget how even in his parting, John has bestowed on us a much-needed moment of unity and renewed faith in the possibilities of America.”
It won’t last. In today’s Washington, it never does.