For 35 years, John McCain has made the journey between Phoenix and Washington, across the desert and plains, the factory towns of the Midwest. Finally, the Pentagon sat on the west bank of the Potomac, home to the generals who had sent McCain to fight in Vietnam. He was on the other side of the river, came to Washington as a US Representative in 1983, and moved to the other side of the Capitol in 1987 as a US Senator. He remained a senator for 31 years until his death this week from brain cancer.
McCain made his last trip from Phoenix to Washington on Thursday in a coffin draped with the American flag. There had been a service at the North Phoenix Baptist Church, a testament to the fullness of his life in both Washington and Arizona. Among the speakers were former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat and longtime friend, and the recipient of the Arizona Cardinals, Larry Fitzgerald.
"Senator McCain, it was a great honor to call you a friend," said Fitzgerald. Biden, who had lost his own son to the same form of brain cancer as McCain, cried when the late 106-year-old mother of the late Senator Roberta watched. Then everyone went into the merciless sun of Arizona as McCain prepared to fly east one last time.
On Friday, McCain was in the rotunda of the US Capital in a state, an honor that only 30 other Americans in history got. As dignitaries from home and abroad began to fill the chamber, Senator Pat Leahy approached the catafalque or pedestal on which McCain's coffin would sit, both during the service and during the public viewing that was to follow. The 78-year-old Vermont Democrat put his right hand on the black cloth that covered the same pinewood slats that carried the casket of Abraham Lincoln.
Apart from clergy, Friday's only speakers in the rotunda were Republican colleagues. And in their words, which had been elaborated by the speechwriters, there was none of the radiant warmth that had been visible the day before in Arizona. That's because McCain's legacy as a member of his own party, after his last significant act as legislator, the Senate's dramatic nocturnal gesture that brought together the republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act, was like that. And to the end, he remained a ruthless critic of Trump, just as other Republicans could deal with reporters' questions about the president's behavior by simply going away. McCain, who had been tortured by the North Vietnamese, was not afraid of reporters and was not afraid of tweets. But he knew that America was in a scary moment, and he was not afraid to say so.
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Vice President Mike Pence (R) speaks as Roberta McCain, mother of late-time Senator John McCain and his daughter Meghan McCain (L) watch his body in the US Capitol Rotunda is located in Washington, USA, on August 31, 2018. (Photo: Eric Thayer / Reuters)