The public was invited to “line the procession route along Constitution Avenue to pay their respects to" Senator John McCain, but the handful of people who flanked the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here on Saturday could have fit snugly under a beer tent.
It seemed at times as if there were more journalists at the Wall than actual mourners.
This was probably apt: Whatever his relations with (and to) Arizona, one of John McCain’s core constituencies had long been the national press corps and they’ve spent most of the days leading up to his funeral filling their home pages and Twitter feeds with moist remembrances of “The Maverick.”
Of the few ordinary people who came to the Wall on Saturday under grey skies and humid air to watch McCain’s widow, Cindy, lay a wreath, only a couple could name anything concrete about their fallen senator. Most seemed to be paying tribute to an idea of the man that he himself worked hard to polish in his last months.
“He’s probably one of the last sane people in Washington,” said John Meier, a 43-year-old special effects artist from Southern California who happened to be visiting his sister in the capital region when McCain died. Meier says he's officially independent in his politics but has leaned toward Democratic politicians in the last few elections. He regarded McCain as one of the few Republicans who was willing “to listen to what the other side has to say.”
Meier’s wife, marketing executive Akane Nelson, said McCain’s career was proof that politics “can be something greater than the one person. We can all think of the one person I’m talking about.”
President Donald Trump’s name has hung over McCain’s obsequies all week, and it’s all but obvious that McCain himself wanted it that way. As he lay dying, McCain invited the two men who beat him to the presidency – George W. Bush and Barack Obama – to deliver his eulogies. Bush, at least, was a fellow Republican and a conservative, but not only was Obama an ideological foe of the senator, the two men weren’t especially close.
In case anyone missed the point, McCain’s daughter, Meghan, drove it home at D.C.’s National Cathedral Saturday when she told a standing-room only crowd of the great and the good that the “America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great."
The crowd applauded.
In his one of last acts as a public figure, John McCain had famously given a thumbs-down to Trump’s efforts to repeal national health care. The ceremonies in Phoenix and Washington this week – all of them carefully orchestrated by McCain himself – were one last thumbs-down to a president he loathed.
That, at least, was enough to drag a few curious onlookers to Saturday’s wreath laying at the Wall.
“There’s not many people like him in this political climate,” said 39-year-old Nedal Awada of suburban Arlington, Virginia. The child of Lebanese immigrants didn’t vote for McCain in 2008 but said she was struck, in retrospect, by his “No, ma’am” confrontation with a wild-eyed supporter who suggested Obama was some kind of Arab-cum-Manchurian Candidate.
“That would never happen today,” Awada said.
For all his “Straight Talk” affectations, there was often something theatrical about John McCain. His thumbs-down moment that “saved” Obamacare, for instance, had come after he had voted for similar (or even identical) measures in the months and weeks before the pearl-clutching climax on the Senate floor.
The ceremonies here Saturday struck even some of the senator’s most ardent admirers in much the same way. “McCain staged his death like the final act of Shakespeare’s Richard III,” former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum tweeted, “every legitimate force in the state, living and dead, combined against the wicked king.”
For many Americans – especially that growing percentage of Americans who don’t share McCain’s arch-conservative politic – little or nothing in McCain’s life became it like the leaving of it. As Trump fell into McCain’s trap this week – first toggling the White House flag, then rage-tweeting through a ceremony from which he had been pointedly excluded – many erstwhile critics of McCain told themselves that he had at least made the right enemies.
“I mean, I didn’t vote for him,” said 29-year-old Lindsay Constantino, who lives and works here in Washington, as she waited to watch Saturday’s wreath-laying at the Wall. “But I think we need more like him.”
Few people in the Washington area did vote for John McCain (he won less than 8 percent of the votes cast here in the District, and was also creamed in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs) but in his death he became a potent symbol of what is sometimes lazily called “The Resistance.”
As Trump continued to bugger himself on the flag flying (it was at half-staff over the White House Saturday, but still full staff at the Department of Interior, just a few blocks from where Cindy McCain laid her wreath), for instance, D.C.’s fantastically mediocre Democratic mayor Muriel Bowser ordered the flags over city buildings lowered, tout suite. (Trump did even worse than McCain in D.C. – winning just 4 percent of the popular vote, fewer than even the number of registered Republicans in the District.)
Not everyone here in Washington viewed McCain as a mere tabula rasa. Among those who gathered at the Wall Saturday were a handful of “boat people,” refugees from Vietnam for whom McCain had so famously fought and sacrificed. Now largely stooped and grey themselves, they wanted their countrymen and -women to know that there was something concrete about McCain’s legacy after all.
“He was the person who urged Americans to open their doors to us, to open their hearts to us,” said 72-year-old Quyen Ngo, who traveled from New Jersey to be here. “We want Americans to understand all the good work he did for the Vietnamese people.”
Many of his liberal and leftist critics despised McCain's hawkishness and saw someone who was callously –even gleefully – willing to set brown people afire. But the fact remains that some of the most wretched of the earth saw in McCain a protector and even friend.
Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., sent an email to Phoenix New Times hailing McCain as “a true American hero” whose death “we are grieving.”
“His immense contribution to Ukraine’s freedom and democracy will never be forgotten,” Chaly said.
Narin Briar used to work as an aide to U.S. Congressman Joe Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. She’s also an ethnic Kurd – one of the world’s largest stateless nationalities – and, while she didn’t care much for McCain’s domestic politics, remembered the senator as “an avid supporter” of the cause.
“Most politicians have always depended on the Kurds as a reliable force to exploit in the Middle East,” she wrote to New Times in a Twitter exchange ahead of Saturday’s ceremonies. “It was John McCain who admitted it and said that American leadership lost credibility in the region.”
Of course, people such as Briar, Chaly, and Ngo were noticeably absent from the dais at Saturday’s funeral in the National Cathedral. In fact, one of the official mourners included Henry Kissinger, a man whose statecraft in Southeast Asia and Kurdistan is considered a byword for depravity.
More than two millenia ago, in another besieged democracy, Pericles warned his fellow Athenians about demagogues who bang on at the graves of fallen heroes. The dead are beyond our mere words, he argued, and the best tribute to them was to resolve to carry on the work of defending the open and just city. His ethos infused the classically educated and self-conscious founders, of course, but his rhetorical beat (“just and proper”) also echoes in the Gettysburg Address (“fitting and proper... it is for us, the living...”).
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In his last act, McCain’s funeral may have been an attempt to reverse Pericles’ formula: This week we’ve seen a fallen hero roar out to a public he worries has crossed beyond the reach of mere words or gestures.
The sparse crowd at Saturday’s wreath-laying seemed to grasp that point in an essential way. They watched in near silence, many holding their cell-phone cameras aloft, as Cindy McCain, flanked by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, laid the wreath and then marched back to the waiting hearse.
As Cindy McCain crested the small hill at the other end of the Wall, though, the crowd burst into sustained applause. Then, watching the entourage peel off en route to National Cathedral, the crowd dispersed. In a few moments, the Wall was quiet again, left to the tourists and joggers.
Bill Myers is a freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets from @billcaphill.