John McCain’s last visit to Washington began with a military honor guard carrying the body of the late Arizona Republican into the Capitol, where his former colleagues paid their final respects to the longtime senator, GOP presidential nominee and war hero.
With dozens of current and former senators and members and McCain’s family in attendance — including McCain’s 106-year-old mother, Roberta — Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan hailed the 81-year-old senator as a uniquely, unmistakably American figure.
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“Generations of Americans will continue to marvel at the man who lies before us,” McConnell said. “The cocky, handsome naval aviator who barely scraped through school, and then fought for freedom in the skies. Who witnessed to our highest values even through terrible torture, and who became a generational leader in the United States Senate, where our nation airs its great debates.”
“This is one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced,” added Ryan, as Roberta McCain quietly wept and held Meghan McCain’s hand.
After the ceremony was over, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), McCain’s closest friend in the Senate, escorted Cindy McCain and members of the family over to the Senate with reporters. Cindy McCain and several of the McCain children spoke to senator’s staff privately off the floor to thank those who have worked for him.
Graham and Cindy McCain then went onto the Senate floor for a brief period, with reporters barred from watching them. Cindy McCain sat in her husband’s chair and Graham sat at his own desk, located next to McCain’s. Graham took two white roses out of the arrangement on the desk, handed one to Cindy McCain, and they exited.
Friday marked the first day of two days of tributes to McCain by official Washington, a gesture on a scale normally given to a deceased president. On Saturday, former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush will offer eulogies at a funeral at the Washington National Cathedral. McCain’s body will be laid to rest on Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in a private ceremony.
Yet conspicuously absent from Friday’s ceremony was President Donald Trump, who had a testy — at best — relationship with McCain. Trump was scheduled to travel to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, White House chief of staff John Kelly, and Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, led a group of senior administration officials who traveled to Capitol Hill for the ceremony.
“The president asked me to be here on behalf of a grateful nation to pay a debt of honor and respect to a man who served our country throughout his life, in uniform and public office,” Pence said. “In every generation, there are those who put country first, who prize service ahead of self, who summon idealism from a cynical age. John McCain was such a man.”
The four days of funeral ceremonies and remembrances for McCain have become a class reunion of sorts for McCain’s old colleagues, friends, and even political rivals. Luminaries who attended Friday ceremony included: Mitt Romney, a former GOP presidential nominee and current Senate candidate; Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey; Rick Scott, governor of Florida and current Senate candidate; Henry Kissinger; and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge; and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy; actors Warren Beatty and Annette Bening; former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood; and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a McCain confidant.
One of the most poignant moments at the ceremony came when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi helped wheelchair-bound Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) touch McCain’s casket. Johnson and McCain shared a cell in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” as POWs during the Vietnam War.
Yet despite their common bond of suffering, the two men often found themselves at odds over politics when they later came to Congress. Johnson opposed McCain’s efforts to normalize U.S. relations with Vietnam, as well as the Arizona Republican’s support for efforts to ban the use of harsh interrogation techniques for terror suspects. Johnson even supported Bush over McCain during the battle over the 2000 presidential nomination, a stunning rebuke.
McCain and Johnson eventually repaired their relationship, and Johnson supported McCain during the 2008 campaign for the White House. “I wasn’t really as courageous as Sam Johnson. I mean that,” McCain once told the Dallas Morning News. “He suffered a lot more than I did.”
Elana Schor contributed to this story.