He was a war hero who survived more than five years of torture as a prisoner in Vietnam and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, but it’s John McCain’s role as a legislator that may have most defined his public life.
A two-term congressman and a senator for more than three decades, McCain shaped US policy on everything from immigration to foreign policy, spoke out against the country’s use of enhanced interrogation practices during the George W. Bush administration and irrevocably changed the very body in which he served.
On Friday, McCain came home to the Senate one last time, becoming only the 31st person to lie in state in the US Capitol, a rare honor reserved for government officials and military officers. While minutes before the sun had shone over the dome, as McCain, carried by an honor guard, ascended the steps, the clouds opened and rain poured down.
Shortly before 11 a.m., McCain’s body entered the Capitol Rotunda. They set the casket atop President Abraham Lincoln’s catafalque, a wooden structure that has been used for decades for such services. McCain’s former colleagues looked on.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a man who at times fought on the opposite side of McCain on issues like campaign finance, remembered McCain as a tough political opponent.
“He had America’s fighting spirit,” McConnell remembered. “I will miss a dear friend whose smile reminded us that service is a privilege.”
“We thank God for giving this country John McCain,” McConnell said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan remembered McCain as a man who made a “tremendous difference,” “a man of conviction” and a “man of state.”
“What stands out about John McCain is what he stood for,” Ryan said. “No one was stronger at the broken places than John McCain.”
Vice President Mike Pence also offered his condolences and memories.
Pence said that President Donald Trump — a man who was not invited to services for McCain — asked him to be there.
“He held fast to his faith in America through six decades of service. We are here today to honor an American patriot who served a cause greater than himself,” Pence said. “We will forever remember that John McCain served his country and John McCain served his country honorably.”
Following that, bipartisan leaders — McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Ryan and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi — presented wreaths. Republican and Democratic leaders stood side by side as they laid them just the way McCain wanted it.
One by one, McCain’s family and then his friends and colleagues approached the coffin to say goodbye. McCain’s mother Roberta, 106, came to be with her son.
Generations of men and women who had sparred with McCain in politics, but also were shaped by his philosophy of “country first,” placed their hands on the flag draped over McCain’s casket.
Pelosi and New York Rep. Joe Crowley escorted 87-year-old Republican Rep. Sam Johnson to McCain’s casket. Johnson, who usually moves about the Capitol on a scooter wheel chair, was a prisoner of war for nearly seven years in Vietnam and shared a prison cell with McCain for part of it.
It was both a celebration of McCain’s life and a somber reminder of the changing times.
“There is only one John McCain,” said Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, told reporters of McCain “We need people with his values here.”
On Friday afternoon, McCain’s wife, Cindy, visited her husband’s desk on the Senate floor with McCain’s friend, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. While in the chamber, Cindy McCain sat in her husband’s chair. Graham sat in his own chair. After a brief conversation, Graham took two white roses out of a vase that had been sitting on McCain’s desk all week and gave them to Cindy McCain.
The public began filing into the Capitol to pay their respects to McCain around 1 p.m.
In recent days, McCain has been eulogized and remembered by Republicans and Democrats alike. He has been celebrated for his ability to reach across the aisle and at times buck his own party, as he did in the summer of 2017 when a simple thumbs down stopped Republicans from moving forward with a plan that would have advanced a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat who shared a presidential ticket with the man who beat McCain, remembered his former Senate colleague as one of the fiercest defenders of the institution.
“We both loved the Senate. Proudest years of my life were being a United States senator. I was honored to be a United States senator,” Biden said. “We both lamented, watching it change.”
After the public is invited to pay their respects to McCain on Friday at the Capitol, on Saturday, a memorial service will be held at the National Cathedral, where former Presidents Bush, a Republican, and Barack Obama, a Democrat, will speak.
McCain relished his time in Congress, a place he had not returned to since December 2017 as he fought brain cancer. In his final message to the American public, McCain celebrated the honor that serving had been.
“Thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them,” he wrote.