Obama, Bush eulogize former political foe John McCain at cathedral service

Former U.S. presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush led mourners on Saturday in a service for the late John McCain, the longtime Arizona senator and Vietnam war hero whose bids for the White House were dashed by the two men.

On the way to Washington's National Cathedral, the cortège of one of America's most famous prisoners of war stopped at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where his wife, Cindy McCain, laid a wreath to honour those who died in the war.

Obama and Bush, a Democrat and a Republican, were joined by a collection of former U.S. presidents, senators, Vietnam-era officials and others paying tribute to the statesman who died Aug. 25 of brain cancer, days shy of his 82nd birthday.

Conspicuously absent was U.S. President Donald Trump, who, over the past three years, engaged in a public feud with McCain, a fellow Republican.

U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis, left, and White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly, join Cindy McCain, wife of the late Senator John McCain, after laying a ceremonial wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Saturday. (Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)

McCain's family had made clear that Trump was not welcome at memorial services in Arizona and Washington, or at Sunday's private burial service in Annapolis, Md., at the U.S. Naval Academy. McCain was a member of the academy's class of 1958.

In Congress, where he was lying in state on Friday, McCain was a leading voice for revamping the country's immigration, campaign finance and environmental laws. But it was his military service, punctuated by years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, that moulded McCain's political life.

McCain, who rose to the rank of captain in the U.S. Navy, was shot down over Hanoi while on a bombing mission in 1967. Held as a prisoner until 1973, McCain was tortured by his North Vietnamese captors in a jail that Americans dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton."

Stoic after wartime suffering

The senator's daughter, Meghan McCain, told those who gathered for Saturday's service she "fully appreciates" how her father "suffered, and how he bore it with his stoic silence that was once the mark of an American man."

"My father knew pain and suffering with an intimacy and immediacy that most of us are blessed never to have endured. He was shot down, he was crippled, he was beaten, he was starved, he was tortured, and he was humiliated.

The casket arrives for the memorial service of U.S. Sen. John McCain at Washington's National Cathedral on Sept. 1, 2018. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

"That pain never left him. The cruelty of his communist captors ensured that he would never raise his arms above his head for his entire life. Yet he survived, yet he endured, yet he triumphed," she said.

Bush also addressed McCain's conduct in Vietnam in his eulogy. "He was courageous, with a courage that frightened his captors and inspired his countrymen," Bush said. "He was honest no matter whom it offended. Presidents were not spared.

'Detested abuse of power'

"He was honourable, always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings," Bush said. "Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots. There was something deep inside him that made him stand up for the little guy, speak for forgotten people and forgotten places."

Obama told the service that McCain was a "conservative guy," but one who believed in "honest argument" and understood "that some principles transcend politics."

On Friday, while lying in state, McCain was commemorated by politicians of all stripes and by mourners who filed past his flag-draped coffin into the night.

On Thursday, people lined a street in Phoenix as the motorcade carrying McCain's coffin arrived at North Phoenix Baptist Church. Shane Doan, a Canadian who's retired from playing in the NHL for 21 years, served as a pallbearer. The former Arizona Coyotes captain was friends with McCain for about 10 years.

When asked by CBC on Saturday how people should remember McCain, Doan said: "That he put everybody first, that he was all about service, that the parties and the politics and all the things that people remember about him, it really came down to him wanting to put the country and the people first."

"He enjoyed life almost more than anyone I know," said Doan. "Yet, he was a guy who was capable of discussing the constitutional democracy of Guam, and then the next second he'd be talking about two blackhawks he has nesting in the valley by his home."

John McCain, seen here in August 2008, will be laid to rest Sunday in a private ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Md. (William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Henry Kissinger among speakers

For Saturday's service, a motorcade took McCain's casket past the capital's stately monuments en route to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with its black, V-shaped granite wall inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers killed in combat.

At the time of his death, McCain was chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he was known as a tough overseer of the country's military.

A U.S. Navy band arrives for the funeral of Senator John McCain at the Washington National Cathedral on Saturday. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

This summer, with McCain too ill to travel to Washington, Congress hurried to pass the "John S. McCain National Defence Authorization Act" that will carry out a huge military buildup by allowing $ 716 billion US to be spent in the coming year alone.

Inside the cathedral, which took 83 years to build and is the sixth largest in the world, the congregants heard from a central figure of the Vietnam War: 95-year-old Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger was an adviser to former president Richard Nixon and played a role in planning the controversial U.S. bombing of Cambodia and negotiating an end to U.S. military action in Vietnam.

Pallbearers for Saturday's service reflect the eclectic political company McCain kept, which helped him earn him the reputation of a maverick willing to work with the other side of the aisle.

They include Hollywood actor and liberal political activist Warren Beatty, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, independent, liberal former senator Russ Feingold, who crafted landmark campaign finance legislation with McCain, and former senator Gary Hart, a Democrat who, like McCain, ran unsuccessfully for president.


With files from CBC News

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