Former U.S. presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, once rivals of the late Senator John McCain, praised him in eulogies on Saturday and joined his daughter at a memorial service in subtle and not-so-subtle rebukes of President Donald Trump.
Without naming Trump, who did not attend the service, Meghan McCain condemned the president in remarks that at times drew applause and came after she said her dad told her to "show them how tough you are" with her eulogy.
"We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served," she said, speaking forcefully and, at times, through tears.
Taking aim at Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," she said McCain's America was always great.
For years Trump feuded publicly with McCain and mocked his military service, continuing to knock him even after he grew ill. The former Republican senator from Arizona died on Aug. 25 from brain cancer, days shy of his 82nd birthday.
- John McCain Made Israelis Feel He Was One of Them
- Joe Lieberman Lauds John McCain's Accommodation of His Jewish Observance, Love of Jerusalem in Eulogy
Trump, also a Republican, spent Saturday tweeting on other subjects and went to one of his private golf clubs in Virginia.
Nearly every major U.S. political leader attended the memorial service, and while Trump himself was absent, his presence was felt through the content of the tributes.
And by design. McCain asked Obama and Bush to deliver eulogies while the family made clear that Trump was not welcome.
Obama, who beat McCain in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, hailed the one-time prisoner of war for his commitment to truth and core democratic values, qualities that some critics see lacking in Trump, a former reality television star and New York City real estate mogul.
"So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, and phony controversies, and manufactured outrage," Obama said. "It's a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born in fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that."
Obama also noted McCain's support for a free press. Trump has repeatedly called the media the enemy of the American people.
"HE COULD NOT ABIDE BIGOTS AND SWAGGERING DESPOTS"
Bush, in his eulogy, described McCain as a man with a code.
"He loved freedom with a passion of a man who knew its absence. He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators," Bush said. "Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots."
Trump has sought to forge close relationships with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The former U.S. presidents joked about McCain's imperfections, while saying he made them better leaders. Their presence as eulogists was a clear signal from McCain of his desire for more civility and bipartisanship in Washington.
The senator's body, which had lain in state at the U.S. Capitol, arrived at the cathedral with a motorcade that first stopped at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There his wife, CindyMcCain, laid a wreath to honor those who died in the war.
Bush, 72, made headlines for a different reason as well during the funeral as video after went viral of him accepting a candy from his wife, Laura Bush, while listening to former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman speak before stealthily passing it on to Michelle Obama.
Twitter was quick to react with many users declaring the moment as a touching tribute to the bi-partisan spirit McCain stood for with one user captioning the video as, "Make American Sweet Again."
Full text of George W. Bush's remarks:
Cindy and the McCain family, I am honored to be with you, to offer my sympathies, and to celebrate a great life. The nation joins your extraordinary family in grief and gratitude for John McCain.
Some lives are so vivid, it is difficult to imagine them ended; some voices are so vibrant and distinctive, it is hard to think of them stilled. A man who seldom rested is laid to rest and his absence is tangible, like the silence after a mighty roar.
The thing about John's life was the amazing sweep of it—from a tiny prison cell in Vietnam to the floor of the United States Senate; from troublemaking plebe to presidential candidate. Wherever John passed throughout the world, people immediately knew there was a leader in their midst. In one epic life was written the courage and greatness of our country.
For John and me, there was a personal journey—a hard-fought political history. Back in the day, he could frustrate me and I know he'd say the same thing about me, but he also made me better. In recent years, we sometimes talked of that intense period like football players remembering a big game. In the process, rivalry melted away. In the end, I got to enjoy one of life's great gifts: the friendship of John McCain and I'll miss it.
Moments before my last debate ever with Senator John Kerry in Phoenix, I was trying to gather some thoughts in the holding room. I felt a presence, opened my eyes, and six inches from my face was McCain who yelled, “Relax, relax!”
John was, above all, a man with a code. He lived by a set of public virtues that brought strength and purpose to his life and to his country. He was courageous, with a courage that frightened his captors, and inspired his countrymen. He was honest, no matter whom it offended. Presidents were not spared. He was honorable, always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings. He loved freedom with a passion of a man who knew its absence. He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators.
Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots. There was something deep inside him that made him stand up for the little guy, to speak for forgotten people in forgotten places. One friend from his Naval Academy days recalled how John, while a lowly plebe, reacted to seeing an upperclassman verbally abuse a steward. Against all tradition, he told the jerk to pick on someone his own size. It was a familiar refrain during his six decades of service.
Where does such strength and conviction come from? Perhaps from a family where honor was in the atmosphere. Or from the firsthand experience of cruelty, which left physical reminders that lasted his whole life. Or from some deep well of moral principle. Whatever the cause, it was this combination of courage and decency that defined John's calling, and so closely paralleled the calling of his country. It’s this combination of courage and decency that makes the American military something new in history, an unrivaled power for good. It’s this combination of courage and decency that set America on a journey into the world to liberate death camps, to stand guard against extremism, and to work for the true peace that comes only with freedom.
John felt these commitments in his bones. It is a tribute to his moral compass that dissidents and prisoners in so many places—from Russia to North Korea to China—knew that he was on their side. And I think their respect meant more to him than any medals and honors life could bring.
The passion for fairness and justice extended to our own military when a private was poorly equipped or a seaman was overworked in terrible conditions. John enjoyed nothing more than dressing down an admiral or a general. He remained a troublesome plebe to the end.
Those in political power were not exempt. 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.
John is the first to tell you he was not a perfect man but he dedicated his life to national ideals that are as perfect as men and women have yet conceived. He was motivated by a vision of America carried ever forward, ever upward, on the strength of its principles. He saw our country not only as a physical place or power, but as the carrier of enduring human aspirations. As an advocate for the oppressed, as a defender of the peace, as a promise, unwavering, undimmed, unequal.
The strength of democracy is renewed by reaffirming the principles on which it was founded. And America has somehow always found leaders who were up to that task, particularly at times of greatest need. John was born to meet that kind of challenge, to defend and demonstrate the defining ideals of our nation.
If we're ever tempted to forget who we are, grow weary of our cause, John's voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder: We are better than this. America is better than this.
John was a restless soul. He really didn't glory in success or wallow in failure because he was always onto the next thing. Friends said, “He can't stand to stay in the same experience.” One of his books ended with the words: “And I moved on.”
John has moved on. He would probably not want us to dwell on it, but we are better for his presence among us. The world is smaller for his departure. And we will remember him as he was: unwavering, undimmed, unequal.