John McCain’s Parting Gift to His Nation

The senator orchestrated a final ceremony that called his fellow citizens to live up to the greatness of American ideals.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

In one way, the fallen of the great republic are all equal in death. The casket draped with a new flag is the same for a soldier headed on the last journey home in a military transport from Iraq or Afghanistan, the veteran of Korea or Vietnam coming to his final rest, or the great figure in public life mourned by millions. That is as it should be.

But it is also right that each should be unique, and so it was for John McCain and the service honoring him in America’s second-largest church, the Washington National Cathedral. There were several thousand people in attendance, so many eminent persons that the multibillionaires and legendary commanders, the nationally known journalists and eminent intellectuals sat anonymously in the middle of the pack. In the front row were three former presidents and their vice presidents; senators and representatives by the score, if not the hundreds; former and current secretaries of Cabinet offices; and presidents, prime ministers, and ambassadors of foreign countries.

An occasion of this kind is bound to linger in the mind as a series of moments—the preliminary soft knelling of the bourdon bell as the official party entered; the rustle of hundreds of right hands moving to cover hundreds of hearts as the honor guard slowly carried the casket up the long aisle; the widow, a picture of dignified grief, allowing her head to sink to her sailor son’s shoulder during the singing of “Danny Boy”; the startling and universal applause when McCain’s grieving daughter, with a fierceness that was her father’s and a sorrowing fury that was her own, reminded those in attendance that America does not need to be made great again, because it was always great.

The songs were strong because the words were so familiar. “Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee / For those in peril on the sea.” “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved.” “I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps / They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps.” “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death / I will fear no evil.” “Oh beautiful for heroes proved / In liberating strife / Who more than self their country loved / And mercy more than life.”

Everyone—from the leather-faced Marine general to the most hard-bitten reporter—at different moments felt their breath catch and brushed moisture from their eyes. For many it was when the cathedral choir and the Naval Academy glee club sang “America the Beautiful.” All present rose and sang together the last verse:

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years,
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!

America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

The cathedral resounded with thousands of voices, then echoing stillness.

The rhetoric was not epic, but it was powerful. The 44th president told the mourners that when John McCain immediately and firmly rebuked the woman who insisted that Barack Obama was a foreigner, McCain was not standing up for him so much as for America. When George W. Bush said that we can hear McCain whispering over our shoulders, “America is better than this,” he did so with a gleam in the eye and a fierceness in the voice which left unspoken the words and we are.

It has been said that the ceremonies attending McCain’s last rites, which the senator orchestrated with exquisite care before his death, were a giant rebuke to the current president. In some ways they were. It said all that needed to be said that while the dignities and the courtesies were being performed, President Donald Trump was spilling bile in tweets and going off to play golf. But members of his own Cabinet attended. His chief of staff, looking gaunt and haunted, was there. So, too, was the president’s daughter.

The ceremony was not, however, in the end directed against Trump, and it was not even primarily about John McCain. It was, rather, in a patriot’s last act for his country, about America. All politics is theater, which is why Shakespeare is a better guide for us than equations in learned journals of political science. This was high drama, conceived and conducted as a statement and a gift. It celebrated bipartisanship, service, generosity of spirit, patriotism, moderation, and self-sacrifice. The word senator comes directly from the Roman republic, unlike representative or president, so it is unsurprising that the Roman virtues were on display: dignity, gravity, authority, fidelity, family.

McCain’s funeral was intended to remind his fellow citizens, as all the speakers said but as the ceremonies conveyed even more powerfully, that the United States is about the greatness of its ideals; that when it falls short, as it inevitably must do, that should occasion not cynicism, but a drive to repair wrongs and build anew; that American patriotism is, as McCain warned us, the very opposite of blood-and-soil nationalism; that when America fails to lead abroad, darker forces gather and gain force, minorities can be massacred with impunity, and dissidents can be safely strangled in underground chambers.

The mood as the attendees left the cathedral on a warm and soggy Washington summer afternoon was somber but elevated. Crowds had formed outside—tourists, neighbors, passersby—that knew something powerful had happened. Strangers asked if they could snap images not of the great and famous, but of the program. And now, as McCain would have growled at each of those present, it was time to get back to the work of bringing his beloved and bewildered country back to its best.