Two ex-Presidents and one eloquent daughter teamed up to rebuke the pointedly uninvited Donald Trump.
Donald Trump’s name was never mentioned. It didn’t have to be. The funeral service for John Sidney McCain III, at the Washington National Cathedral, on this swampy Saturday morning, was all about a rebuke to the pointedly uninvited current President of the United States, which was exactly how McCain had planned it.
Of course, there were fulsome tributes to Senator McCain’s bravery and courage and public service, stark reminders of the torture he endured as a prisoner of war, and of the policies he fought for (and against) in his many decades as a Republican politician from Arizona. But McCain knew that would not be the headline from the grand service, whose many details he personally oversaw. This was to be no mere laying to rest of a Washington wise man, nor just another funeral of an elder statesman whose passing would be marked by flowery words about the end of an era. It was a meeting of the Resistance, under vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows.
This was made clear a few minutes into the two-and-a-half-hour service, when McCain’s daughter Meghan, weeping at times, called it a funeral for nothing less than “the passing of American greatness” that her father represented, and not the “cheap rhetoric” that now passes for it. Later, her voice breaking, she said, “The America of John McCain does not need to be made great again, because it is already great.” Her eulogy was then interrupted by applause, the first time I have heard such a thing at a funeral in that great, cavernous, and sombre Episcopalian hall. She hadn’t uttered the name of the “President Non Grata,” as the Washington Post recently referred to Trump, nor did she need to. Midway through her remarkable speech, a pool report from the White House was released. Trump, wearing a white “Make America Great Again” hat, and having tweeted his morning complement of bile, directed at Hillary Clinton, Robert Mueller, and his own Justice Department, had departed to play golf.
Before he died, McCain had personally enlisted Trump’s two Presidential predecessors to speak at the service, and when they came to the lectern both George W. Bush and Barack Obama fulfilled the role they had been assigned, offering tributes to the man they had each beaten in an election, as well as odes to the American political system they all loved. In any other context, maybe it would not seem to be a stinging criticism to hear Obama praise the “rule of law.” But Trump is the inescapable context of these times in Washington. “Perhaps above all,” Bush said, “John detested the abuse of power.” When Bush talked about McCain’s dedication to America’s leadership in the world and his hatred of tyrants, how many of those listening thought of the current President’s praise for many of those same dictators whom McCain had been so proud to oppose? Of course they thought of it. That was the point.
In the line of his address that is sure to be its most quoted, Obama seemed to describe both Trump and the divisive way in which he has chosen to lead the country. “So much of our politics can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage,” Obama said. “It’s a politics that pretends to be brave, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.” Heads nodded. Democratic heads and Republican ones alike. For a moment, at least, they still lived in the America where Obama and Bush and Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney could all sit in the same pew, in the same church, and sing the same words to the patriotic hymns that made them all teary-eyed at the same time. When the two Presidents were done speaking, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” blared out. This time, once again, the battle is within America. The country’s leadership, the flawed, all too human men and women who have run the place, successfully or not, for the past few decades, were all in the same room, at least for a few hours on a Saturday morning. The President of the United States, however, was not.
McCain’s grand funeral—the Obama adviser David Axelrod called it an exercise in “civic communion”—underscored a fact that is often lost about Washington these days. The city is much more bipartisan, in some respects, than it has ever been, more united than it may currently seem, in its hatred of Donald Trump.
Some are more forthright about this than others, for understandable reasons. Others are circumspect, especially the elected Republican officials who have now publicly bowed to Trump after trying and failing to stop his ascendance in their party. But their presence at McCain’s funeral suggested that the final chapter has not yet been written in the Republican drama over what to do about the crude interloper who has taken over their party. McCain certainly died hoping for something other than the current, slavish devotion to Trump that many Republicans on Capitol Hill now profess, and that is what his funeral was meant to remind us. Watching John Boehner and Elizabeth Warren, David Petraeus and Leon Panetta, Al Gore and Madeleine Albright and Paul Ryan glad-hand in the pre-noon hours of September 1st, there was no doubt of what their presence there, together, was meant to convey.
A little after 9 a.m., President Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, made an entrance in the packed Cathedral, embracing Republican senators, nodding earnestly, dressed in black like everyone else. Trump’s national-security adviser, John Bolton, was there, too, along with John Kelly, the former Marine general whom Trump has enlisted as his White House chief of staff. All eyes were on them, and, after the service, that is much of what the buzzing knots of people outside the cathedral talked about: What were they thinking as they heard the speeches? Why did they come? Were they embarrassed? Ashamed? Should they be? They should not be under any illusions, and I imagine they weren’t: this was a room full of people who hate much of what their boss is doing, and that they are letting him do it. Was a tax cut for the wealthy worth it? A few dozen judicial appointments and two Supreme Court seats?
A few minutes after the service, when the talking and singing was over and the bipartisan establishment flowed back into the humid swamp outside the cathedral, I ran into Jeff Flake, McCain’s fellow-senator from Arizona and, like McCain, one of Trump’s few remaining public critics among Republicans on Capitol Hill. “The fever will break eventually,” Flake said. “It has to.” It was an oddly optimistic thing to say at a funeral, and, when he said it, it hardly sounded convincing.
But I imagined that it was the prayer voiced silently by many of those in the room. I thought back to the beginning of the service, when the choir had sung the beautiful words of the Navy Hymn: “Oh Holy Spirit, who didst brood upon the chaos dark and rude and bid its angry tumult cease and give, for wild confusion, peace; oh hear us as we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea!” I have heard those words at many funerals before, but never did they seem to speak to the room in quite the same way.