It was a moving tribute to a beloved lawmaker. Or perhaps it was a ruthless takedown of an autocratic president.
Actually, the service in Washington on Saturday honoring the life of late Sen. John McCain was, perhaps, equal parts of each.
President Donald Trump was not invited to speak at McCain’s funeral service. Instead, Trump, dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and visor, instructed the Secret Service to drive him to his golf club in Northern Virginia.
Even if he had been welcomed at the service, it’s hard to imagine the president showing up to honor a man he had spent the previous three years belittling.
With the commander-in-chief was busy on Twitter at the Trump National Golf Club, former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush were offering remembrances of a man who spent more than five years in captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
During his eulogy, Obama described himself and Bush as two of the “fortunate few who competed against John at the highest levels of politics.”
Former Pres. Obama denounces a politics "that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is borne of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that." https://t.co/qPSvgqGwxJ pic.twitter.com/Wxh3M4bWiH
— ABC News (@ABC) September 1, 2018
“He made us better presidents. Just as he made the Senate better. Just as he made this country better,” Obama said. “So, for someone like John to ask you while he was still alive to stand and speak of him when he is gone, is a precious and singular honor.”
Bush told the mourners gathered at the Washington National Cathedral that McCain “was honorable, always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings.”
There is no political necessity to keep Canada in the new NAFTA deal. If we don’t make a fair deal for the U.S. after decades of abuse, Canada will be out. Congress should not interfere w/ these negotiations or I will simply terminate NAFTA entirely & we will be far better off…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 1, 2018
The incumbent president meanwhile did not even show enough decorum to refrain from tweeting during the service. Trump sent out a Twitter message about the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying there was “no political necessity” to keep Canada in a newly negotiated deal with Mexico. At least he refrained from lobbing negative tweets at McCain during the service.
The late senator’s daughter, Meghan McCain, was less subtle in her censure of Trump, although she still avoided mentioning the president’s name.
“We gather to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly,” she said in her remarks.
— The Hill (@thehill) September 1, 2018
She received applause for stating that “America does not boast, because she has no need to.”
“The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great,” she said as a retort to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
The United States certainly cannot lay claim to sustained greatness, especially with its sordid history of slavery and Native American genocide, and it’s instinct to flex its military muscle over a willingness to engage in honest diplomacy.
But that didn’t matter to the people in attendance or watching on television. Even if they had reservations about America’s unsullied greatness, they saw the statement as the perfect antidote to the poisonous climate unleashed by Trump in the MAGA era.
The word "impeached" has multiple meanings. @realDonaldTrump is being impeached today.
— Joan Walsh (@joanwalsh) September 1, 2018
Late in his eulogy, Obama also took what has been interpreted as a jab at Trump, describing how American politics has coarsened over the past two years, and how McCain represented a more principled leader.
“He understood that if we get in the habit of bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our democracy will not work,” Obama said.
“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insults and phony controversies and manufactured outrage,” Obama said.
“It is a politics that pretends to be brave, and tough, but in fact is born fear. John called on us to be bigger and better than that.”