At the memorial service he had carefully planned, John McCain managed to deliver a final and defiant rebuke to the man who wasn’t there, whose name was never uttered.
President Donald Trump was one of the few of the nation’s political elite, past and present, who weren’t among the more than 3,000 mourners at the National Cathedral for an emotional, affectionate, often humorous and sometimes fierce outpouring in honor of the Arizona senator who was twice defeated in his efforts to win the White House.
In what amounted to a statement of fundamental American principles, he had asked the two men who vanquished those aspirations to deliver eulogies: Former President George W. Bush, who won the Republican nomination over McCain in 2000, and former President Barack Obama, who won the presidency against him in 2008.
Before a word was said, his invitation and their acceptance in itself signaled an endorsement of the importance of civility, humility and bipartisanship – qualities that now seem to be a rare commodity in the capital.
Obama’s closing words were among the most direct about the current state of American politics, including the relentless partisanship that divides Congress into competing party fortresses and the divisive rhetoric that has become the signature of the current president.
“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,” Obama said. “It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is born of fear. John called upon us to be bigger than that. He called upon us to be better than that.”
Soon after the service had begun, Trump departed the White House dressed for golf and wearing a white “Make America Great Again” cap. He already had posted morning tweets denouncing “the corruption” of the FBI and the Justice Department. By the time he arrived at Trump National Golf Club in Loudoun County, Virginia, he had tweeted his unhappiness with Canada and his willingness to abandon NAFTA. “We will be far better off,” he said of the free-trade agreement.
Three miles away, at the cathedral, former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was speaking from the lectern about his departed friend.
The message from the cathedral to the president was unmistakable, a declaration of the Washington establishment to the sitting president that was surely unprecedented.