Senator John McCain was remembered in Phoenix on Thursday as a “true American hero” and a political “maverick”, whose salty humor and scrappy nature endeared him to generations of Arizonans and Americans.
In a deeply personal eulogy, former vice-president Joe Biden called McCain, who died on Saturday after a battle with brain cancer, a “brother – with a lot of family fights”. Biden’s son Beau Biden and another giant of the Senate who both men called a friend, Ted Kennedy, died of the same aggressive tumor.
McCain “could not stand the abuse of power wherever he saw it, in whatever form, in whatever country”, Biden said. The senator embodied basic values, he said, including fairness, honesty and respect.
No speakers uttered Donald Trump’s name, but Biden was not the only one to make what some saw as a veiled reference to the president. The former vice-president talked about McCain’s opposition to those who “lacked the basic values of decency and respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself”.
At North Phoenix Baptist church, an estimated 3,500 mourners, including family, friends, 24 Senate colleagues, Arizona athletes and other dignitaries celebrated the life of a man who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a US representative, a six-term senator and a two-time presidential candidate.
The program was choreographed to send a wider message. Biden is a Democrat whose friendship endured an election that pitted them against one another. Tony Espinoza, a prominent Arizonan Latino leader, recalled McCain’s love of “Mexican culture”. Larry Fitzgerald, a wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals NFL team, described his perhaps unlikely friendship with McCain.
More than one speaker urged politicians in the pews and elsewhere to follow McCain’s legacy by rejecting tribalism and forging friendships across the aisle. Amid personal memories, there were references to current political divisions – and to the presidency of Trump, which deeply troubled the senator.
“John McCain believed in our constitution,” said Grant Woods, his longtime campaign manager. “He would not stand by as people tried to trample the constitution or the Bill of Rights, including the first amendment.”
Earlier, as a motorcade made the eight-mile journey from the state capitol to the church, Vietnam veterans in wheelchairs joined children holding American flags along the route, waving goodbye. At one point, Cindy McCain, the senator’s wife of 38 years, rolled down a window and waved back.
Five days of services began in Phoenix on Wednesday, which would have been McCain’s 82nd birthday. As many as 15,000 members of the public waited in line for hours, as temperatures climbed above 100F, to pay their respects. A single-file procession wound through the copper-domed capitol, where McCain’s body lay in state.
In an emotional ceremony earlier on Wednesday, family, close friends, colleagues and several former members of Arizona’s congressional delegation gathered to remember the late senator. When the speeches finished, Cindy McCain patted the casket gently, then pressed her cheek to the flag draped upon it. The senator’s seven children followed. Meghan McCain, his daughter, leaned into the casket and wept.
On Thursday, McCain’s body was flown to Washington, where he will lie in state at the US Capitol on Friday. Vice-President Mike Pence and congressional leaders of both parties will lay wreaths.
McCain’s funeral will be held at the Washington National Cathedral on Saturday. Speakers will include presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama. McCain ran against Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000 and lost the presidency to Obama in 2008. On Sunday, the senator will be buried in a private ceremony at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, from which he graduated in 1958.
Trump is not invited. McCain refused to vote for him and continued to criticize the president from his ranch near Sedona as he contended with cancer. After McCain died, it took Trump two days to formally honor him.
At the end of Thursday’s service, as the casket was carried from the church to the airport, a song played. It was My Way, sung by Frank Sinatra.