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Former Presidents Bush and Obama Eulogize John McCain


Memorial services are underway, as we speak, for Senator John McCain at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Meghan McCain spoke urgently and passionately about the legacy of her father. We're joined by Ron Elving. He's NPR's senior editor and correspondent on the Washington Desk. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And NPR's Kelsey Snell is outside of the cathedral. Kelsey, can you hear us?


SIMON: Henry Kissinger is speaking at the moment. We've also heard from Senator Joe Lieberman. Let me ask you both about the remarks made by Meghan McCain - deeply personal eulogy, deeply personal memories of her father and reaction but also some very pointed things to say with political smack, if I might put it that way. Ron and Kelsey, let me just quote one. She said, "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 - meaning her father - gave so willingly." What's the impact of that?

SNELL: Well, without saying President Trump's name directly, she criticized him very clearly. She made first reference to her father's service in Vietnam and compared it to people who lived in, quote, "comfort and privilege" while he suffered and served. Trump famously avoided the draft in Vietnam where McCain was a prisoner of war. Then she made reference to Trump by using his own slogan.


MEGHAN MCCAIN: The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold. She is resourceful and confident and secure. She meets her responsibilities. She speaks quietly because she is strong. 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.


SNELL: You know, and I think it's very notable here that she has been very emotionally raw throughout this entire memorial process over the past week. And she stood on the lectern and was very, very forceful and very direct about this. And it happened as Ivanka Trump, the daughter of President Trump, was sitting in the room.

SIMON: Yes, and I must say Ivanka Trump and Jared Trump were not, at least to my knowledge, expected to attend. They did attend. From what I could see on the monitors here, they were graciously received by everybody around there. It's as if this has become such an event in the life of America, they felt they needed to be there.

SNELL: Well...

ELVING: You know, it's interesting, Scott, too, that...

SIMON: Hey, Ron. Yes.

ELVING: It's interesting that they - the family - the McCain family in general had made it clear they did not want President Trump to attend this event. They didn't want him to come to Arizona for the earlier event there. And yet even in some of these arrangements and in the pointed decision not to have him here, you raise the issue of that rivalry, of that bad blood between the senator and the president and that very deep philosophical difference over so many things. And that, too, hovers over this event, even though the president himself is absent.

SIMON: And of course we must note he certainly - he also had philosophical differences and political differences with Barack Obama, who ran against him for president, and George W. Bush, who ran against him in the Republican primaries. And they will be speakers at the memorial service today. So it's...

SNELL: Well their choice...


SNELL: Yeah, their choice to be speakers in this service is a part of McCain wanting to distinguish the fact that while he did have policy differences with Presidents Bush and Obama, they went on to have very close personal relationships. And they shared mutual respect and honor between them. And that has been one of the major themes of all of these memorial services, is that McCain wants to make clear that he had close relationships with people with whom he disagreed.

SIMON: Ron, how is this memorial service at the National Cathedral different from what we saw previously in Arizona?

ELVING: This is much more of an international affair. This is much more of a symbolic affair. This is John McCain making his bid for American history, for his place in American history, for his place in the pantheon of important political figures. That's why the last three presidents are sitting in the front row. That's why we're expecting to hear from Obama and Bush, and they are going to enshrine John McCain in a way that probably nothing that would happen back in anyone's home state could do.

SIMON: Kelsey and Ron, what can you tell us about the attendance that we see? An extraordinary collection of signature Americans, isn't there?

SNELL: Oh, absolutely. And one of the things that we've really been noting here is how bipartisan the crowd is here. Basically every major power player in the city of Washington and in the federal government is inside of the cathedral right now. You also have plenty of people who ran for president. We have - Bob Dole is in there. As we've mentioned, former Presidents Bush and Obama, but also former President Clinton is there. And all of the leaders of Congress are inside. It is a...

SIMON: And Hillary Rodham Clinton, of course.

SNELL: Yes, she is also there. It is a - this is basically - anybody who has been involved in political life in America in the entirety of McCain's political career is here.

SIMON: Including Warren Beatty...


SIMON: ...A well-known liberal Democratic and contributor but is apparently a close friend of Senator John McCain. We'll note that Dr. Henry Kissinger has just concluded his remarks. He's shaking hands with the Obama family and the Bush family and is making his way back to his seat. Just shook hands with General Kelly, of course the chief of staff. Ron and Kelsey, I believe there's going to be some - there's going to be - the "Battle Hymn Of The Republic" will be sung. What can you - how do we summarize the remarks of Senator Joe Lieberman, who was quite moving and pointed and funny?

ELVING: Joe Lieberman was a close...

SNELL: I think we can talk again about...

ELVING: Yes. Go ahead, Kelsey.

SNELL: Oh, go ahead, Ron (laughter). Go ahead, Ron.

ELVING: I was just going to say that Joe Lieberman and John McCain struck up an unlikely friendship in the Senate, and Lieberman commented on that himself. He commented on the fact that John McCain talked seriously to him about being his running mate, even though they did not share a political party. And that is a remarkable way to remember John McCain at this particular moment. And a pointed issue that's being made again and again in this funeral and in the commentary this past week is how much we miss John McCain's truly heartfelt spirit of bipartisanship and how many friends he genuinely had across the aisle.

SNELL: Yeah, and we can't say enough that these all were people that were specifically chosen by McCain before his death. This was very closely orchestrated to send a message to the American public about what kind of leadership McCain saw out of his own personal career and what kind of leadership he'd like to see going forward.

SIMON: Some of the personal insights in Senator Lieberman's remarks, too - by the way, it's the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club, is now singing "Amazing Grace" - where he talked about the fact that Senator McCain sort of accommodated himself to (laughter) Senator Lieberman's Orthodox Judaism. And he said how fitting that John's memorial service should be on Saturday because he knows that means I had to walk here (laughter) to the National Cathedral. But I...

ELVING: Because Joe Lieberman is Orthodox...


ELVING: ...And doesn't use public transportation or any form of transportation, any motorized transportation on a Saturday morning.

SIMON: And I was very struck by just the personal recollection where he said that after he left the Senate, Senator McCain kept encouraging him to get an apartment in Jerusalem where the two of them - a city they visited a lot together and grew to love - could sit out on the balcony and look over that often troubled city that they both revered and just be with each other and with a sense of history. It was a very moving moment at least for me.

ELVING: You know, that's an unrealistic expectation in terms of not only the logistics and the cost and the health of the two people involved, but it's still an authentic sentiment on the part of John McCain. That would be something he would much like to do. He was a great student of history. He lived a great deal of history. We just saw Henry Kissinger recalling some of that history, and of course Henry Kissinger was national security adviser and then secretary of state during the Vietnam - during the period that John McCain was in the Hanoi Hilton.

SIMON: Yeah. It's in many ways - isn't it, Ron and Kelsey? - a funeral that befits someone who has been a chief of state and suggests that John McCain, although he never became president, fulfilled a very special role in the life of the United States.

SNELL: Well, choosing this location, I think, imparted some of that ceremony to it. This is a place, after all, that has been the site of - place is where they have prayer services after inaugurations and where presidents like Reagan were memorialized before a national audience. So the location has a strong significance, and just the number of people who are here really puts McCain at a level of national prominence that isn't shared by many.

SIMON: And, Kelsey, there are people outside, too. I gather the crowd on Wisconsin Avenue is considerable.

SNELL: Oh, it is. And one of the most interesting things that we're seeing here is that people are gathered around the satellite trucks that are feeding the video from inside of the cathedral, and they're crowded around the trucks to watch those feeds so that they could be here and be in this space and still watching it. It's pretty remarkable.

SIMON: We are awaiting - and now former President George W. Bush is making his way to the podium, and we will be hearing from former President Bush - George W. Bush in just a moment.


SIMON: Former President George W. Bush has just completed his remarks about Senator John McCain at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He's being escorted back to his seat. We expect to hear from former President Obama momentarily. President Bush is greeting Cindy McCain, shaking hands with President Obama. President Obama has picked up his remarks. And he's now being escorted to the podium. And we will hear now from somebody who also ran against John McCain for president but spared no admiration for him.


SIMON: Former President Barack Obama speaking, of course, at the memorial service at the National Cathedral for Senator John McCain. He was preceded by former President George Bush. And President Obama joked they had both run against - Senator McCain had run against both men for president. And he said what wonderful revenge. John would've enjoyed this - forcing both George and I (laughter) to say good things about him to a national audience. We're joined by NPR's Ron Elving and NPR's Kelsey Snell, who is at the cathedral. Thanks both very much for being with us. Ron, what stood out for you in the remarks of these two former presidents, one Republican, one Democratic?

ELVING: It did not seem as though they had been forced to say nice things about him. It seemed more as though they were eager to say the kinds of things about him that came from the deepest part of their affection not just for John McCain but for the country, for politics, for the way our politics have worked, for the way our history has been formed. The speeches, taken together, were tremendously meaningful and, I think, reminded us of a period in our recent past when people in both parties probably felt better not only about each other but about their own party.

SIMON: Kelsey Snell, what did you notice?

SNELL: You know, I noticed that while President Donald Trump is not in the room, there have been references to him than - in almost every speech. And it's been quite remarkable. Actually, I thought it was really very moving when President Obama talked about - he said what a better way to honor John McCain's life of public service than by recognizing that there is something bigger than fame, power, principles that are eternal. This was a big theme of all of these speeches - has been talking about moving forward in the footsteps of McCain and building a more bipartisan, a more grounded type of politics that has - people in the room felt are lacking in the current atmosphere.

SIMON: As President Obama said, he and - he said that he and Senator McCain would get together in the Oval Office for conversations occasionally and would not withhold their political disagreements from each other. But he said, at the end of the day, we always knew that we were on the same team. Another thing I noted, Ron and Kelsey, George W. Bush mentioned - and this is something that I've been blessed to observe as a reporter in war zones all over the years. Political dissidents in Russia, in China, in Egypt, in Iraq, all over the world were thrilled when they would hear that Senator John McCain knew about them and respected them. They seemed to think that, as a man who had been in prison for 5 1/2 years himself, he understood their risk. He understood their sacrifice in a way no other politician in the world did.

ELVING: Yes, and he was an electric person to have in the room. Many times, when senators travel around the world on these congressional delegations, they sit there. They say the diplomatic things. They ask a few questions. They listen. John McCain was a person who always was going to engage you, who was always going to have a lot to say, was going to tell you what he didn't like about your policy and was going to defend the American point of view. This kind of engagement, I think, is always gratifying to leaders of other countries and challenging to them. And it's just something that they're likely to look forward to.

SIMON: I guess it reminds us, too, Kelsey Snell, that John McCain was an image of America in the world regardless of who was president.

SNELL: Yeah, absolutely. It is one of the things that he is most well-known for outside of the U.S. - is how frequently he traveled, how often he made sure that he was in the countries that he was working on. And anytime he was working on policy, he wanted to go see the situation on the ground. And I was out on the front lawn of the Capitol yesterday as people were lining up for his - to see him lying in state in the rotunda. And one of the things I noticed is there were people holding signs that said that, I was a political dissident, or thank you for recognizing prisoners of war in my country. And it was - he very much spoke to people in that way.

SIMON: Kelsey Snell outside the National Cathedral and Ron Elving, thanks very much for being with us. We have, of course, been covering services at the National Cathedral of Senator John McCain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for