Inside the Pomp and Circumstance at John McCain’s Funeral

Invited guests lined up outside the Washington National Cathedral hours early for what became an unrivaled assemblage of official Washington to mourn the death of a father, a warrior, a senator, and a friend.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The invited guests started to line up at about 7:15 a.m. By the time the doors of the Washington National Cathedral opened at eight, two hours before the start of Senator John McCain’s funeral, hundreds were waiting. The queue snaked out to the sidewalk along Wisconsin Avenue, between satellite-TV trucks on the side of the road and the media tent city that stood on the lawn.

The designated media minders told reporters headed into the sanctuary that they would be seated 90 minutes in advance, would need a chaperone to visit the restroom, and could not leave until the departure of the “protectees.” The cathedral grounds were flush with law enforcement: Secret Service, Capitol Police, Diplomatic Security Service, cathedral police, D.C. police, and private security.

Half the seating in the south transept was reserved for senators, placing their gaggle directly under the balcony where the press was sequestered, making for a celebrity-spotting exercise like few others. Look, John Boehner and Paul Ryan are still hanging out! Who is that Ivanka’s talking to? Bob Dole must be 95 by now. (Indeed, he hit that milestone in July.) One reporter was fairly certain that the back of one particular balding head belonged to Anthony Kennedy, the recently retired Supreme Court justice. Military uniforms dotted the congregation. With the McCain family’s long and prominent history in the Navy, sailors in dress whites predominated; the Navy sent its brass ensemble, and the Naval Academy its glee club.

Members of President Donald Trump’s White House staff—Chief of Staff John Kelly; National-Security Adviser John Bolton; his daughter Ivanka Trump; and her husband, Jared Kushner—shared a section with veterans of the previous administration, including John Kerry and Leon Panetta. The row of ex-presidents went: Barack Obama on the aisle, then Michelle Obama next to George W. Bush and Laura Bush, next to Bill Clinton, then Hillary Clinton beside Dick Cheney, whose wife sat beside Al Gore. Joe Biden was somewhere nearby. Aside from other former presidents and first ladies, few funerals could bring together this assemblage.

Shortly before 10 a.m. the glad-handing in the aisles came to an end. Everyone found a seat. The congregation hushed.

A lone voice chanted outside the grand front doors of the cathedral: left, right, left, right. After the Episcopal bishop of Washington received the casket at the door, the pallbearers—eight uniformed men representing every branch of the military—marched into the narthex. As the casket entered the sanctuary, the whir of long-range camera shutters grew into a furious buzz. When the hymn began, the grand organ’s 10,647 pipes surged over the congregation’s singing.

The tributes began with the senator’s daughter Meghan, who spoke with both tears and ferocity. She alluded to the current president a few times, never by name. “We come here to mourn American greatness,” she said. “The real thing.” She spoke of McCain as a tough but loving father, someone who demanded courage but did so with gentleness. She recalled getting thrown from a horse; he comforted her and tended to her injury, but when she had recovered, he made her get back on the horse. She finished with her clearest rebuke of President Trump.“The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again,” she said, “because the America of John McCain was always great.” Although that line was not her last, a smattering of applause erupted and grew into a general ovation. It’s not every eulogy that has an applause line.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama memorialized the man they each defeated to reach the White House. For a man of 72, Bush had a sprightly walk as he followed a verger to the lectern, dodging a bursting bouquet of white flowers. He told how the former rivals became friends over the years, talking about the 2000 campaign the way retired football players rehash a great game.

Obama walked to the lectern next, looking down at his text in a way that seemed unusual for him—there was no teleprompter protruding from the carved stone railing. He spoke of McCain’s unpublicized visits to the Oval Office when he was president and, like Bush, said the senator made him better. Obama recalled the moment in the 2008 campaign when McCain rebuked a supporter who questioned Obama’s patriotism (and ethnicity). “I was grateful,” Obama said, “but I wasn’t surprised. That was John’s instinct.” They both spoke of decency, courage, grit, and goodness.

Minutes later, photographers scurried up the stairs to the back of the press balcony, lining up to be shepherded to the cathedral’s front doors to capture the casket leaving the building.

As the congregation joined in the final stanza of “America the Beautiful”—“O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved”—acolytes in hooded white robes prepared for the exit, with a cross flanked by torches. They lined up in front of the casket as the honor guard marched to its place and then slowly sidestepped in unison toward the exit. Step by step, it rotated the casket 180 degrees. The recessional procession began after the head of the honor guard bellowed: “Forward … march.”

As the flag-draped casket passed through the congregation at about 12:30 p.m., some mourners placed their hands over their hearts, perhaps less a part of protocol than a spontaneous symbol of their sympathy and grief. Mourners began to empty out; the section of senators evaporated, leaving only Bob Dole in his wheelchair.

Inside the sanctuary, sailors slipped into a side chapel and returned their brass instruments to their padded cases. Priests and acolytes went to the vesting room to take off robes. Workers picked up signs for reserved seating, folded extra chairs and began getting ready for a wedding scheduled for later in the day.

Senator McCain died in August. Now it was September, with barely two months left before the all-important midterm elections. And Washington awoke from its two-and-a-half-hour bipartisan nap.