It was the final tribute to John McCain – a funeral amidst the majesty of Washington’s National Cathedral. But undoubtedly animated by the current occupant of the Oval Office, there was the inescapable sense of a funeral for the entire political order of post-World War II America.
In a service attended on Saturday September 1st by virtually every major political figure of the late 20th and early 21st centuries from both sides of the aisle – with the notable and deliberate exception of the uninvited President Trump – there was embedded in the words of praise for the fallen senator a palpable sadness for what was and is no more.
Henry Kissinger, a giant in the annals of political history dating back to the heyday of President Nixon, stated forthrightly what others implied. Speaking not of McCain but of the world and the challenges they shared in days gone by, the former Secretary of State said, “I feel a longing for what is lost and can not be restored.”
One could not help being marched back through the fullness of time to the days of Vietnam, the strife of the 1960s, the Cold War and forward to this day.
But as seems unavoidable in the Donald Trump era, there was a political tinge to this solemn occasion beyond the McCain family’s refusal to invite the sitting president. Amid myriad tributes, soaring rhetoric and personal recollections from no less than Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, among others, the defiant spirit and contempt for Trump of John McCain was channeled through his daughter Meghan. The media personality, an angry timbre pulsating through her voice, delivered a broadside at the 45th president: “The America of John McCain had no need to be made great again – because America was always great.” It was the only time the congregation interrupted a speech with applause.
Former Senator Joe Lieberman, always a respected and rare bipartisan Democrat, the running mate of Al Gore in 2000 and considered for the same role by McCain in 2008, spoke somewhat less transparently, but with an unmistakable regret for what politics has become, condemning the “tribal partisanship and personal attack politics that have recently characterized our life.”
Lieberman went on to address things which made McCain popular among Democrats, and often infuriated those in his own Republican Party, noting that among McCain’s greatest personal disappointments was his inability to “stop climate change, close the gun show loophole and broadly reform immigration laws.”
Lieberman spoke of a quality in McCain not often cited: forgiveness. He chronicled how this man who endured inconceivable cruelty in the hellhole known as the Hanoi Hilton somehow found it in his heart to not only forgive the Vietnamese people for what had been done to him, but successfully led the movement to normalize relations with Vietnam many years after his release.
George W. Bush delivered a fine and humorous speech, joking about his long-running rivalry with the late senator. Barack Obama, the victor over McCain in 2008, delivered an insightful address stipulating and making light of their broad political differences. The 44th president delivered the laugh line of the day in describing the call he received from the dying senator asking him (and also George W. Bush) to speak at his funeral.
Obama brought down the house in recognizing McCain’s mischievous streak: “What better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience?” About McCain’s famous temper and irascibility, Obama added playfully, “I had a reputation for keeping cool. John not so much.”
It was a day to remember in the nation’s capital. But while it was meant to pay final respects to a fallen national figure, it may well be remembered – for better or worse – as the sad farewell of a generation whose time has come and gone.