Before the plane carrying his casket rose to the skies for one final flight to Washington, DC, the late Sen. John McCain got his final send-off from Arizona on Thursday with a funeral that honored both his enduring commitment to bipartisanship and the state that “enchanted and claimed” him.
CNN’s reports that almost a quarter of McCain’s fellow senators, Democrats and Republicans, traveled to Arizona to remember him during a carefully executed program that began at the Arizona State Capitol, continued to the Baptist church where he worshiped and ended at the Phoenix airport, where hundreds of Arizona National Guardsmen gave him one final salute.
McCain’s flag-draped casket was carried with full military honors from the Capitol, where more than 10,000 Arizonans visited Wednesday to pay their respects, to North Phoenix Baptist Church. With family, friends, scores of former aides and 1,000 average Arizonans in the audience, McCain was eulogized by figures of all political persuasions from former Vice President Joe Biden, to his former chief of staff and potential successor Grant Woods to Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
They remembered McCain with laughter and tears, as all the speakers touched on the values he had imparted to them — a shared humanity, a commitment to civility and compromise and the ideal of country before party.
“My name is Joe Biden. I’m a Democrat. And I love John McCain,” Biden said, in an opening quip that captured the tone of the service.
Woods, who recalled the first of many terrifying drives with McCain on his first day as a young chief of staff, described the life that he and so many other aides had lived with McCain. It was, Woods said, “a little bit harrowing, a little bit wild … but a lot of fun. And the greatest honor of my life.”
Fitzgerald described his unlikely friendship with McCain: “I’m black; he was white. I’m young; he wasn’t so young. He lived with physical limitations brought on by war. I’m a professional athlete. He ran for president. I run out of bounds. He was the epitome of toughness, and I do everything I can to avoid contact.”
“While from very different worlds, we developed a meaningful friendship,” Fitzgerald said. “He didn’t judge individuals based on the color of their skin, their gender, their backgrounds, their political affiliations or their bank accounts. He evaluated them on the merits of their character and the contents of their hearts.”
But it was Biden, McCain’s longtime friend from the days when he was the Navy’s liaison to the US Senate, who gave the most deeply personal tribute.
Touching on his own losses, of his first wife and daughter, who died in a car accident in 1972, and his son Beau in 2015, he counseled the McCain family on how to soldier on through their grief, and compared loss to “being sucked into a black hole inside your chest.”
“It’s frightening,” he said.
The cancer that ultimately took the life of McCain also afflicted Biden’s son Beau.
“It’s brutal. It’s relentless. It’s unforgiving. And it takes so much from those we love and from the families who love them that in order to survive, we have to remember how they lived, not how they died,” Biden said of the cancer.
He also spoke, at times with evident anger, about the deterioration of political discourse and values today.
The former Vice President noted that many people have asked him to explain McCain, because he admired him, but also viewed him as though “he came from another age, lived by a different code, an ancient, antiquated code where honor, courage, integrity, duty, were alive,” Biden said.
“It wasn’t about politics with John,” Biden said. “He could disagree on substance, but the underlying values that animated everything John did, everything he was, come to a different conclusion. He’d part company with you if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself.”
The former vice president recalled that McCain spent his final day on the Senate floor trying to restore order.
“What was he fighting to do?” Biden asked. “He was fighting to restore what you call ‘regular order.'”
Biden became McCain’s opponent when he was nominated to be Barack Obama’s vice presidential nominee in 2008, when McCain was the Republican presidential nominee. But despite their political differences, the former vice president said he views McCain as a brother.
“The way I look at it, the way I thought about it was that I always thought of John as a brother,” Biden said. “We had a hell of a lot of family fights. We go back a long way.”
Biden, who got to know McCain when he served as a Navy liason for the Senate, recalled traveling around the world with the future Arizona senator in the 1970s as part of his duties on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden said they “were optimists” and spoke about everything except his family’s recent deaths and McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
“I trusted John with my life and I would think he would trust me with his,” he added.
McCain would call him in the middle of a campaign to give him advice, Biden recalled.
“Whenever I was in trouble, John was the first guy there … He would call me in the middle of the campaign (and) say, ‘What the hell did you say that for? You just screwed up, Joe,'” he said.
He said McCain “love basic values — fairness, honesty, dignity, respect.”
Biden ended with a line that brought many in the audience to tears: “To paraphrase Shakespeare: we shall not see his like again.”