At McCain’s Memorial, Tears, Laughs and Allusions to the Man Not Invited

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke at the memorial service for Senator John McCain in Phoenix on Thursday.

PHOENIX — Senator John McCain was remembered Thursday at a memorial service that evoked the one-time prisoner of war’s unbreakable will, the Arizona senator’s devotion to his adopted state and the maverick Republican’s willingness to break with his party to defend what he believed were his country’s founding principles.

While none of the friends, family members and fellow lawmakers who paid him tribute between song and scripture invoked the name of President Trump, who was not invited, they held up the political values of the man they honored to draw an unmistakable contrast.

“John understood that America was first and foremost an idea, audacious and risky, organized around not tribe but ideals,” said former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., speaking at a Baptist church here that included thousands of mourners and nearly a quarter of the Senate.

Grant Woods, Mr. McCain’s first congressional chief of staff and a former Arizona attorney general, was even blunter.

“He would not stand by as people try to trample the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment,” said Mr. Woods, a Republican.

But the hour-and-a-half service honoring Mr. McCain, who would have turned 82 Wednesday, included more tears — and far more laughter — than it did high-minded political lectures.

Mr. Biden recalled that he once found his wife, Jill, dancing on a cafe table in Greece after Mr. McCain took her to dinner when they were traveling overseas together; the Arizona Cardinals great Larry Fitzgerald Jr. said Mr. McCain would jokingly text him, “You need to pick it up this Sunday”; and Mr. Woods remembered one of the sardonic senator’s recurring jokes: calling the senior-citizen community Leisure World “Seizure World.”

And in a nod to Mr. McCain’s affection for the rites of tradition and his penchant for the irreverent, the ceremony got underway with a choir’s rendition of “Amazing Grace,” but his flag-draped coffin was taken out of the sanctuary by a military honor guard to the piped-in voice of Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.”

Mr. McCain’s body lay in state in Arizona’s Capitol Wednesday, and his sons spent much of the evening greeting thousands of mourners who braved triple-digit heat to pay their last respects. Arizonans lined the street leading up the church, many holding small American flags or bearing “McCain” signs that resembled his 2008 presidential campaign logo.

The Thursday memorial was part of a weeklong tribute to Mr. McCain, who succumbed last week to brain cancer. Following the service, the coffin carrying Mr. McCain was taken by motorcade to the Phoenix airport and transferred to military aircraft for one final trip to the nation’s capital. In Washington, Mr. McCain will lie in state in the Capitol on Friday before a memorial service on Saturday at the National Cathedral. He will be buried near his alma mater, the Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md., on Sunday.

[See the full schedule of memorial events planned for Mr. McCain.]

But it was this state that Mr. McCain represented for 35 years in Congress. On Thursday, as a giant video screen above the stage displayed the red-and-green hues of Sedona, he was hailed as an Arizona icon in a ceremony suffused with the culture of the Southwest.

A Navajo flutist performed a hymn, recalling Mr. McCain’s relationship with his state’s native tribes; a choir of children sang the song “Arizona”; and Mr. Fitzgerald invoked the senator’s passion for the state’s sports teams.

“He loved this place,” said Mr. Woods, “and if John McCain fell in love with Arizona, Arizona fell in love with John McCain.”

Before he married his wife, Cindy, and moved here in 1981, Mr. McCain had lived longer in a Hanoi prisoner-of-war camp than he had any other place, a point he made with devastating effect when questioned about his ties to the state in his first House campaign. Arizona voters elected him the following year and supported him every time he was on the ballot, including in two failed presidential bids, up through his re-election to the Senate two years ago.

With his Vietnam heroism and celebrity preceding him, the rootless son and grandson of admirals would eventually become as identified with this state as the political giants he succeeded, Representative John Rhodes in the House and Barry Goldwater in the Senate.

Mr. McCain also embraced the diversity of his state, as the speakers recalled, working closely with the tribes and the Hispanic community.

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Senator John McCain’s wife, Cindy, and his children paid their respects at a ceremony in the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix.CreditCredit...Ross D. Franklin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Tommy Espinoza, a Mexican-American leader here and one of two Democrats who spoke, noted that even though he was a liberal working with the group Chicanos Por La Causa, Mr. McCain still asked him to help lead his first Senate campaign.

And Mr. Espinoza recalled Mr. McCain’s fruitless efforts to overhaul the country’s immigration laws.

“He would say, ‘You know what, I can’t believe these families that come from another country, from Mexico, from Central America, to work — cutting our grass, feeding us, bringing in the labor force that we need — and now we turn on them?’” Mr. Espinoza recounted.

“He understood all of us — whether it was white, black, brown, Asian, to him it didn’t make any difference — what he knew is that we all make America great,” he said, repeating the phrase as silence enveloped the interior of the church.

Kim Secakuku, a member of Arizona’s Hopi tribe who also attended the service, said she was moved by the tributes. “John McCain was someone who showed respect for people regardless of their background, their wealth or lack thereof, what language they grew up speaking,” she said.

[Read the Times obituary for Mr. McCain.]

Mr. Biden, a Democrat who served for over two decades with Mr. McCain in the Senate, said his former colleague offered “hate no safe harbor” and was willing to work with anybody who shared his moral code.

“He’d part company with you if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing that this project is bigger than yourself,” said Mr. Biden.

And in his 30-minute eulogy, the former vice president lamented how bitter politics has become, recalling how he and Mr. McCain used to sit with another on the Senate floor until the leaders of their parties reproached them for the show of bipartisanship in the 1990s.

The garrulous Mr. Biden, unsurprisingly, veered off his prepared remarks at times. But he did not offer the gathering’s most awkward moment: that belonged to Mr. Espinoza, who invoked Sarah Palin, Mr. McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election. Ms. Palin was not invited to any of the memorial services, and Mr. McCain, in his final book and in an HBO documentary, said he wished he had defied his advisers and picked his friend, former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, for vice president.

Mr. McCain asked Mr. Espinoza’s wife, he recalled, what she would think about selecting a woman as his running mate.

“’Well, I really don’t care if it’s a man or a woman — if something happens to you, I want to make sure that person can run the country,’” Mr. Espinoza recounted his wife saying, prompting fleeting and muffled laughs in the church.

There was more poignancy than politics, though, and Mr. Biden did little to hide how saddened he was by the death of his friend. Mr. McCain died of the same type of brain cancer that had felled former Senator Edward M. Kennedy nine years to the day before, and three years after Mr. Biden’s eldest son, Beau, also died of the disease.

“I have had the dubious honor of giving some eulogies for fine women and men I’ve admired,” Mr. Biden said, before calling out to Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mr. McCain’s best friend. “But Lindsey, this one’s hard.”

It was Mr. Woods, though, who brought tears to many as he recalled that when Mr. McCain was held captive in Vietnam, one of the guards indicated he was a Christian by drawing the sign of the cross in the dirt of the prison courtyard. It was the Christmas season, Mr. Woods explained, and the guard wanted to demonstrate their shared faith.

The holidays were difficult in the five-and-a-half years Mr. McCain spent in captivity, Mr. Woods said, but prisoners of war endured in part by singing Christmas songs to one another. Mr. McCain’s favorite was “Silent Night.”

As Mr. Woods concluded his remarks, he saluted the naval aviator who refused an early release from prison camp and would go on to be a towering figure in American politics.

“He served his country with honor,” he said. “He fought the good fight. He finished the race. He kept the faith.” And then Mr. Woods stepped from the lectern and drew a cross with his foot on the stage.

“Sleep in heavenly peace,” he said. “Sleep in heavenly peace.”

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