Obama, Bush Remember McCain as Man Who'd 'Not Abide Bigots and Swaggering Despots'

john mccain casket at national cathedral

WASHINGTON -- With an emotional eulogy from his daughter Meghan and pointed tributes from presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, family and dignitaries said farewell to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) this morning at the National Cathedral.

"We gather here 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, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served," Meghan McCain said, adding later to applause that "the America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great."

Meghan McCain remembered "the love of a father who mentors as much as comforts" and said she came to appreciate how much he suffered and how he triumphed over the years of torture he endured at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors. She said that when she asked her father what she should say in his eulogy, he replied, "Show them how tough you are."

"We live in an era where we knock down old American heroes for all their imperfections when no leader wants to admit to fault or failure," she said. "You were an exception and gave us an ideal to strive for."

Obama said that McCain "made us better presidents just as he made the Senate better, just as he made this country better -- so for someone like John to ask you while he is still alive to stand and speak of him when he is gone is a precious and singular honor."

He quipped that McCain asking his former presidential competitor to eulogize him showed "a little bit of a mischievous streak, after all, what better way to get a last laugh than make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience."

"I think John came to understand the long-standing admiration that I had for him," he added.

"John believed in honest argument and hearing other views. 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. That's why he was willing to buck his own party at times. Occasionally work across the aisle on campaign finance reform and immigration reform. That's why he championed a free and independent press as vital to our democratic debate and the fact it earned him good coverage didn't hurt either," Obama said.

"John understood as JFK understood, as Ronald Reagan understood, that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our blood line, not on what we look like, what our last names are, not based on where our parents or grandparents came from or how recently they arrived, but on adherence to a common creed that all of us are created equal, endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights," he added. "It has been mentioned today, and we've seen footage this week John pushing back against supporters who challenged my patriotism during the 2008 campaign. I was grateful but I wasn't surprised."

"...I never saw John treat anyone differently because of their race or religion or gender and I'm certain that in those moments that have been referred to during the campaign, he saw himself as defending America's character not just mine."

Obama said that during his two terms in the Oval Office McCain would sometimes drop by for a chat about policy, their families, and "the state of our politics."

"So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty. Trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It's the politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is born of fear," he continued. "John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that. Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be but what will happen in all the other days that will ever come can depend on what you do today."

Obama said McCain can be best honored by "recognizing that there are some things bigger than party or ambition or money or fame or power, that there are some things that are worth risking everything for; principles that are eternal, truths that are abiding."

Bush recalled that McCain "could frustrate me... but he also made me better."

"He was courageous, with a courage that frightened his captors and inspired his countrymen. He was honest, no matter whom it offended. Presidents were not spared. He was honorable, always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings. He loved freedom, with the passion of a man who knew its absence," Bush said. "He respected the dignity inherent in every life -- a dignity that does not stop at borders, and cannot be erased by dictators."

"Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He'd not abide bigots and swaggering despots. There was something deep inside him that made him stand up for the little guy -- to speak for forgotten people in forgotten places."

Bush added, "If we're ever tempted to forget who we are, to grow weary of our cause, John's voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder: We are better than this. America is better than this."

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), one of McCain's best friends, said McCain kept to a rigorous schedule but always respected Lieberman's practices as an observant Jew, "whether it was walking with me on a Saturday to an important meeting or turning down a popular Friday night dinner invitation at the Munich Security Conference we went to every year because it was too far to walk."

"Right now I think he is probably deriving some pleasure from the fact it turned out his funeral was held on a Saturday and I had to walk to get here," Lieberman quipped.

"When John returned to the Senate after his surgery last summer and voted against the Republican healthcare bill, some people accused him of being disloyal to his party and the president, but that was not the case," he said. "If you listen to the speech he gave that day, you'll know it was not the case. That speech made clear that his vote was not really against that bill but against the mindless partisanship that has taken control of both our political parties and our government and produced totally one-sided responses to complicated national problems like healthcare, and of course he was right."

Lieberman said that McCain's death "seems to have reminded the American people that these values are what makes us a great nation; not the tribal partisanship, personal attack politics that have recently characterized our life."

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said at the service that "even in his parting, John has bestowed on us a much-needed moment of unity."