Donald Trump’s name was never mentioned but Barack Obama delivered a broadside at the president when he spoke at the memorial service for John McCain in Washington on Saturday and decried “insult and phony controversies” in politics and public life.
Meghan McCain, the daughter of the late Republican Senator from Arizona who died last Saturday, also issued blistering criticism of Trump’s politics when she spoke at the event at America’s national cathedral.
Delivering his eulogy from in front of McCain’s flag-draped coffin, Obama said: “So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage.”
In front of the thousands gathered, including leaders from both sides of the political aisle – but excluding Trump, who was expressly not invited, Obama continued: “It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough 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.”
At the start of the service, Meghan McCain had delivered a tearful, bitter denunciation of Trump’s politics to the gathering of the Washington elite, including the president’s own daughter, Ivanka Trump.
Meghan McCain told the 2,500 invited guests: “We gather to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who’ll never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who lived lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.”
Trump received five deferments from the Vietnam war draft: four for university and one for “heel spurs”. As former presidents Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton looked on from the front pew, McCain, echoing her father’s own blunt speaking of truth to power, insisted: “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”
There was a momentary pause. Then, unusually on such a solemn occasion, the air under the cathedral’s high vaulted ceiling filled with the sound of spontaneous applause at the direct rebuke to the president’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again”.
McCain, a Vietnam prisoner of war, six-term senator and Republican nominee for president, died from brain cancer a week ago, just short of his 82nd birthday. He fought a rancorous public feud with Trump until his last breath. Most dramatically, he sank his own party’s attempts, not long after Trump took office in 2017, to repeal Obama’s flagship Affordable Care Act that allowed millions more Americans to have health insurance. With a flourish, he put his thumb down on the Senate floor to signal his No vote, which was decisive in saving the act.
Trump was not at Saturday’s memorial service, at McCain’s own discretion. Instead the president, who has said only a few grudging words about the Arizona senator all week, reportedly left the White House while the event was under way, not even watching on television. Pundits could only speculate whether he was seething that, for once, he was not the center of attention. As Bush and then Obama, by McCain’s invitation, gave eulogies, the White House reported that Trump had arrived at his golf course.
Even Trump’s own family and staff appeared to have deserted him on the issue. Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, both senior White House advisers, and several members of the administration were at the cathedral.
Dressed in black, Ivanka Trump embraced McCain’s closest friend in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, who then chatted and smiled with Kushner while touching him on the arm. It was 9.19am and, at that very moment, Trump tweeted about the justice department investigation into alleged collusion with Russia and what he called a “fake dossier”.
On a damp, grey and humid morning, as the cathedral bells chimed and the pipe organ thundered, the service was the US capital’s hottest ticket and a throwback to a pre-Trump era. From former vice-presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden to Henry Kissinger and former Republican presidential nominees Bob Dole and Mitt Romney, it was a bipartisan who’s who of Capitol Hill. And from ex-House speaker John Boehner and former vice president Dick Cheney to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, this was Washington royalty with all its graces – and its contradictions.
Obama also said: “While John and I disagreed on all kinds of foreign policy issues, we stood together on America’s role as the one indispensable nation, believing that with great power and great blessings, comes great responsibility.
“When all was said and done, we were on the same team. We never doubted we were on the same team.”
Bush, who has been criticised for dirty tricks against McCain during the 2000 Republican primary election, which Bush won before going on to win the White House, said: “Back in the day, he could frustrate me, and I know he’d say the same thing about me. But he also made me better.”
He added: “He was honest no matter whom it offended. Presidents were not spared. He was honourable, always recognising that his opponents were still patriots and human beings. He loved freedom with the passion of a man who knew its absence.”
The day was full of coded repudiations of Trump’s nationalism and demagoguery. McCain “loved freedom with the passion of a man who knew its absence and, perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power and could not abide bigots and swaggering despots”, Bush continued. “There was something deep inside him that made him stand up for the little guy… to speak for forgotten people in forgotten places.”
Pallbearers included Biden, actor Warren Beatty and a Russian dissident, Vladimir Kara-Murza, all of whom were friends.
McCain’s 106-year-old mother, Roberta, magnificent in all black with a pearl necklace, watched from a wheelchair on the front row.
The service lasted around two and a half hours. One of the most poignant moments came near the end when, during a rendition of “Danny Boy”, McCain’s widow Cindy sat stoically as tears settled on her right cheek.
(The London Guardian)