Thousands line up for McCain, called one of our ‘bravest souls’
Alexis Egeland | Cronkite News
Arizona Sen. John McCain lay in state Friday in the U.S. Capitol, honored by the nation’s top elected officials and then by thousands who waited in wilting heat for the chance to file past his flag-draped casket.
The packed Rotunda was silent as Cindy McCain laid her head on her husband’s casket and the senator’s 106-year-old mother, Roberta, crossed herself.
Tributes from Vice President Mike Pence and congressional leaders – Speaker Paul Ryan called McCain “one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced” – were followed by hours of mourners filing past.
The casket, resting on the same catafalque that held Abraham Lincoln’s casket in the Rotunda, was to remain overnight under the watch of an honor guard before being carried to Washington National Cathedral for services Saturday.
But not before thousands of mourners, from all over the country and from nations around the world, shuffled past for a brief moment of respect.
Most waited hours to get in, some being caught in a summer downpour, all braving the muggy August air that left some in need of medical treatment from the heat.
But Jim Mayer, a Vietnam veteran who stood in line for hours on two prosthetic legs, said it was worth the wait to honor McCain, who he called a personal hero and one of the best of the Vietnam veterans.
“He stood up for what was right, even if it was unpopular,” Mayer said. “He was a champion for doing the right thing.”
Jonathan Eisenmann said he moved from upstate New York to the Washington area to pursue a political career 17 years ago, inspired by McCain’s patriotism and leadership. Eisenmann, in a red, white and blue striped shirt and red shorts, said his career in politics never panned out, but McCain kept his faith in politics alive.
“He wasn’t afraid to do what he thought was right, not what people told him to do,” Eisenmann said. “That really resonated with me. He wasn’t afraid to just do what he genuinely believed.”
This was a common sentiment inside and outside the Rotunda, where McCain was called a patriot, a maverick and a true American.
In a morning ceremony, current and former members of Congress, Cabinet members, mayors and governors – including Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey – packed the Rotunda in what was for many a standing-room only event.
McCain’s staff and family sat as lawmakers eulogized the six-term senator.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recalled McCain’s fighting spirit that echoed the spirit of the nation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan referenced a quote by Ernest Hemingway that he said embodied McCain: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
No one, Ryan said, was stronger at their broken places than McCain. He encouraged others to learn from the legacy McCain left behind, serving their country fearlessly and courageously.
“This is one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced,” Ryan said. “However you choose to do your part, I hope you do it the way he did.”
Vice President Mike Pence was sent to speak on behalf of President Donald Trump, a frequent McCain antagonist. Pence and his wife laid a wreath beside the casket, as did the Republican and Democratic leaders, first of the Senate and then of the House.
Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush – both foes of McCain’s during his presidential bids – are scheduled to speak at Saturday’s service at the cathedral.
The pairings were a notable touch of bipartisanship and forgiveness in the ceremonies – largely planned by McCain – that reflected legacies of his that many touched on.
Lance Bell, who was standing in line with fellow veteran Michael Herron, said McCain’s bipartisanship was one of the things he respected most about the senator, and something he wishes more politicians would strive for.
“I think McCain was a dying breed in the Republican Party,” Bell said. “I feel like the Republicans’ soul just died.”
People started lining up outside the Capitol at 7 a.m., prepared with umbrellas for the downpour that started just as the hearse carrying McCain’s body arrived around 10:30. The rain only lasted about 20 minutes, but the umbrellas proved to be a good idea, shading people from the sun while they stood in line, which grew as the day wore on.
“I’m glad to see people from different backgrounds and to see support for McCain outside of Arizona,” said Nogales native Victor Gamas, a 20-year-old Georgetown University student who interned for McCain and worked on his 2016 campaign.
The line took anywhere from two to three hours to get through, and it scared some away. George Jacobsen, 21, an American University student from Florida, said he “wanted to be a part of history, but that line is crazy.”
For many others, however, the few moments spent with McCain made the wait worthwhile.
“America is lucky to have people like John McCain in the government. He always spoke from experience and from a love for his country,” said Onyekwelu Nwadiuto, who was in town from Nigeria with his family.
Even though they were only here for two days, Nwadiuto said he knew they had to make time to honor McCain. He said McCain’s death resonated with his community in Africa, who had been watching his work for years.
“We’ll miss him and his global leadership,” he said. “He was always someone we can trust.”
Gus Santos waited in line with a large bouquet of red, white and blue flowers to celebrate the work McCain did for the immigrant community. Santos, who now lives in Maryland, is originally from Brazil.
“McCain sided with the immigrants,” Santos said. “He put country above politics – he was a maverick.”
Curtis Baxter said he felt compelled to come from Virginia because his father was a prisoner during the Vietnam War, just like McCain, and he passed away when Baxter was young.
“One way of respecting him was to come out and respect John McCain,” Baxter said.
Lauren and Jordan Mayo waited for two hours in their Navy uniforms with their 4-year-old daughter. They were there to teach their daughter, who was wearing a dress covered in anchors, about patriotism and leadership from a man they believed embodied those characteristics best.
“She knows that he was a really great man and that we’re here to honor him,” Lauren said. “As much as our 4-year-old can understand, I think she got it.”
– Cronkite News reporters Renata Clo and Vandana Ravikumar contributed to this report.