The skies outside the Capitol opened up Friday morning as a military honor guard carried the drenched flag-draped casket of Sen. John McCain up the stairs of the Capitol for the final time before bright sunshine later emerged. Inside, Vice President Mike Pence and congressional leaders feted a man who was a walking force of nature.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the Arizona Republican’s death a “great loss” for the country but told a packed Capitol Rotunda they were gathered to “celebrate a great life” that featured “six decades of devotion to the American idea and the cause of human freedom.”
Watch: Ryan, McConnell and Pence Honor McCain at the Capitol
“We marvel at the man who lies before us,” McConnell said, his words echoing under the Capitol Dome. “The cocky, handsome naval aviator who barely scraped through school then fought for freedom in the skies.”
McConnell, who sometimes was frustrated by McCain’s signature “maverick” instincts that led him to buck his party leaders’ whims, described the late senator as a “generational leader in the United States Senate, where our nation airs our great debates.”
— John M. Donnelly (@johnmdonnelly) August 31, 2018
Speaker Paul D. Ryan said McCain, who was shot down during the Vietnam War and tortured to the extent that he never fully recovered from his injuries, “deserves to be remembered how he wished to be remembered.”
He described the senator this way: “A patriot who served his country. A man of the Senate but also a man of the House. A Navy man. A family man. A man who made an enormous difference in the lives of countless people. A man of conviction. A man of state.”
Ryan noted the stillness and quietness inside the Capitol Rotunda, noting on any given day Congress was in session, McCain likely would have gone “bounding” through to the awestruck gazes of tourists. Ryan saluted McCain’s “sense of purpose” and painted him as being fueled, in part by the “common humanity that burns in each of our hearts.”
The ceremony was somber but featured light moments, such as when McConnell, Ryan and Pence each noted being on the receiving end of a signature McCain scolding or “debate.” The soon-to-retire speaker recalled one of the first instances he caught McCain’s ire, saying he remembers thinking, “He really does talk like a sailor.”
These folks can’t get into the Capitol for about an hour, the doors open at 1pm
— K Tully-McManus (@ktullymcmanus) August 31, 2018
But, as he and other speakers noted, the late lawmaker and former Navy pilot “never feigned disagreements — he didn’t feign anything — he just relished the fight.”
President Donald Trump’s relationship with McCain often was testy, and the commander in chief was asked by the family to stay away from the Capitol service and all the other remembrances this week.
But Pence said “the president asked me to be here on behalf of a grateful nation to pay a debt of honor and respect to man who served our country throughout his life in uniform and in public office.”
Of the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Pence declared “Americans marveled at the iron will of John McCain” because “captivity did not diminish John’s sense of calling or his commitment to mission.”
Ryan quoted Ernest Hemingway, one of McCain’s favorite authors, saying like one of the writer’s characters: “No one was stronger at the broken places than John McCain. The broken places were his ballast.”
After the senator’s family said their goodbyes, friends and members of Congress shuffled past the American-flag covered casket.
Among them was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of McCain closest friends — both inside the Capitol and out.
He said something in the direction of the casket and patted it several times before taking his leave. It was reminiscent of myriad times he had approached McCain in the hallways of Capitol Hill, said something into his elder friend’s ear with a few pats on his old friend’s back, before they darted into an elevator or down a corridor to finish their conversation away from reporters’ prying ears.
This time, however, Graham walked away alone.
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