Former President Barack Obama expresses his condolences to Cindy McCain after delivering a eulogy at her husband Senator John McCain’s funeral on September 1, 2018 at Washington National Cathedral. (photo credit: James Boyle)
When you get to be my age, you start to attend lots of funerals. In just the past decade I’ve buried both my parents, my only brother and my only sister, so not only have I been to many funerals, I have also helped to plan, organize and be part of the services, too.
None of that experience, however, prepared me for the funeral of John Sidney McCain III, held earlier this month in Washington, DC. It was a one-of-a-kind funeral for a one-of-a-kind individual, and its impact on me continues unabated, ten days later.
In his death, John McCain gives me hope. Hope that most people really do appreciate and respect a person who gives this world his or her all. Hope that the ceremony of a church service can transcend the simple ritual and become a unifying force outside the sanctuary. And hope that some day soon we’ll all be able to summon our better angels to work together for the good of our country.
I first met John McCain in the mid-1990s when I was running the PR shop at Discovery Channel and the Senator was featured in an original documentary produced for the channel, entitled “The Fall of Saigon.” He agreed to come to speak at a promotional luncheon for the program and though he arrived annoyingly late, the wait was worth it. Senator McCain held the crowd spellbound as he spoke about his years in captivity at the “Hanoi Hilton,” and how he and his colleague John Kerry planned to convince then-President Bill Clinton to act to normalize relations with Vietnam.
But by the point in my career I had seen lots of impressive speakers and had met lots of politicians and so it wasn’t just the way he delivered his message on stage that impressed me. It was also the way he interacted with everybody there, and I mean everybody – from the Discovery executives to the VIP advertiser and cable operator guests all the way to the servers and the busboys.
He was a regular guy, but with a glint in his eye. His fame came in a way that he certainly didn’t ask for, but nor did he flinch from the responsibilities that same fame had granted him. He shook hands with everybody and he looked each person in the eye when doing so. He found common ground with everyone almost immediately, teasing me about my soup-stained tie and my colleague about his “too-long” choice of film clip.
A few years later, I met Senator McCain again under very trying circumstances. He had been asked to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of a man who was not only younger than him, but who also had been the leader of student resistance in the U.S. to the war in Vietnam during the time of the then-Navy pilot’s captivity in Hanoi.
If such a thing is possible, Senator McCain hit that eulogy out of the ballpark. The mostly liberal crowd at a synagogue in Bethesda, Maryland wept openly as Senator McCain spoke warmly and sincerely of the friendship that he had developed with David Ifshin. I wish I could remember all of the Senator’s words that day, but I do remember these: “David’s country was a better place for his service to her, and I became a better man for my friendship with him.”
Until September 1, 2018, that Bethesda eulogy by John McCain was the most moving I had ever heard. But then along came my fortunate invite to the Washington National Cathedral where Joe Lieberman, Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush and Barack Obama eulogized John McCain and it has now slipped to number five on my list. The former Senator, the former Secretary of State and both former Presidents told stories about John McCain that not only honored him, but also honored our country.
And that is appropriate because that goal – to honor our country with his service – was the essence of John McCain. As he himself said in his last speech on the Senate floor: “This country — this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good, and magnificent country — needs us to help it thrive.”
He could very well have been speaking about himself and, in his own sly way, John McCain probably was. He was certainly a boisterous, intemperate, restless and daring man, and he was also a brave and good person wanting only the best for us, all of us. We owe him nothing less in return. RIP Senator McCain.