A Rare Moment of Unity, in Celebration of John McCain

A Rare Moment of Unity, in Celebration of John McCain
A Rare Moment of Unity, in Celebration of John McCain

WASHINGTON — John McCain on Friday made his final visit to the Capitol he ruled as a commanding presence for more than three decades to be grieved and celebrated by colleagues past and present. He would have loved it.

Much of official Washington joined current members of Congress and dozens of former colleagues from the House and Senate under the Capitol dome to pay tribute to the late senator, congressman, war hero and failed but proud presidential contender.

The service was imbued with the dignity, seriousness and respect — as well as the capacity to embrace with affection someone of a different political ideology — that are so lacking in American politics these days. And that seemed to be the point.

Mr. McCain’s death is giving Americans — even those who might have disagreed strenuously with him — an opportunity to recognize someone for a selfless life of service to his country at a time when many are disillusioned and dispirited about politics in both substance and tone.

“A lot of people in the country are looking for a person who can be held up as an exemplary public servant,” said John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, in giving his view of why Mr. McCain’s death is resonating so strongly across the country.

President Trump was not welcome at the event, and his glaring absence was strongly felt. No one had to say it aloud, but the days-long national farewell for Mr. McCain has taken on the distinct feel of a sharp counterpoint to Mr. Trump — an outpouring of appreciation for a unique political figure, a political rival whom Mr. Trump belittled and whose record of service he initially failed to acknowledge upon his death.

“I prayed at the coffin that our nation live up to his integrity, honesty and idealism,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said after the emotional service, which left some of Mr. McCain’s closest colleagues drained.

As Mr. McCain himself often said, he was not without his flaws. But he was a public figure who pursued his goals with principle and an intensity that his colleagues envied. They assembled in recognition of his special stature.

“Many of us wish we had the courage to have played the role John McCain played,” said Connie Mack III, a Florida Republican who entered the House with Mr. McCain in 1983 and later served with him in the Senate.

There was no small amount of political intrigue at the ceremony as those attending noted carefully who was on hand from the Trump administration — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former senator now under intense fire from the president; Rod J. Rosenstein, the No. 2 at the Justice Department and the official responsible for the special counsel inquiry; the chief of staff, John F. Kelly; the president’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway; and a retinue of national security officials whose ties to Mr. McCain go much deeper than with Mr. Trump.

Many on hand stole glimpses of the Trump officials as the ceremony proceeded.

“What a lot of drama,” said one current senator who preferred not to be named discussing the atmospherics of such a solemn event. But that was another aspect of the service that would have appealed to Mr. McCain, himself the instigator of much Capitol Hill drama over the years.

Vice President Mike Pence, who in his job also serves as president of the Senate, represented the White House and took pains to point out that “the president asked me to be here on behalf of a grateful nation to pay a debt of honor and respect to a man who served our country throughout his life, in uniform and in public office.”

Mr. Pence also managed to work in a plug for tax cuts by commending Mr. McCain — whom Mr. Pence worked with as a House member to ban earmarks and instill some fiscal discipline — noting that his support for “limited government, for tax reform, and support for our armed forces surely left our nation more prosperous and more secure.”

But it was left to Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, and Speaker Paul D. Ryan to convey the deep admiration of most in Congress for Mr. McCain — though not without the de rigueur acknowledgment of Mr. McCain’s famous temper and the difficulties he could present when others were trying to coax him into a compromise.

“He treated every issue with the intensity the people’s business deserved,” said Mr. McConnell, who clashed fiercely with Mr. McCain over changes in campaign finance law but reconciled with him in recent years. “He would fight tooth and nail for his vision of the common good. Depending on the issue, you knew John would either be your staunchest ally or your most stubborn opponent.”

“I will miss a dear friend whose smile reminded us that service is a privilege,” Mr. McConnell said, “and whose scars reminded us of the great cost that brave souls pay for our freedom.”

Mr. Ryan remembered his own fights with Mr. McCain, recounting that “with John it was never feigned disagreements. The man didn’t feign anything. He just relished the fight.”

“Though the highest office eluded him,” Mr. Ryan said, “he attained what is far more enduring, the abiding affection of his fellow citizens and an example for future generations.”

The line of admirers that formed outside the Capitol in scorching heat for the chance to pass by Mr. McCain’s coffin clearly underscored how he had won the affection of citizens who, for a few days at least, had their faith in the spirit of public service renewed.

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