As Washington prepares for John McCain’s funeral Saturday at the National Cathedral, those looking at the arrangements can’t help but read into the apparent politics behind the late senator’s choice of speakers and pallbearers.
Most obviously, two former presidents are slated to give eulogies while one sitting president will be noticeably absent. McCain’s choice—and it was a deliberate choice—to have George W. Bush and Barack Obama speak doesn’t appear to stem from a deep, personal friendship with either man and clearly was intended to send a message. The question circling the decision has more to do with what that message is and just how pointed it is meant to be.
According to CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, who covered McCain’s campaign, any animosity McCain had toward Obama—whom he came to respect over the years—softened because of their shared alarm over the current political climate. Obama was asked in April via a call arranged by advisers; McCain and Obama were not close, Zeleny wrote, and spoke rarely. Around the same time, Bush also received a call. Aides told CNN that both former presidents were surprised by the request, but both immediately agreed.
A friend of McCain’s told CNN that the choice of two former rivals was meant to send a message of civility, that “differences in political views and contests shouldn’t be so important that we lose our common bonds.”
Others, though, have said that such a message can’t be read without noting an implicit dig at Donald Trump. According to the New York Times, in speaking through his friends, McCain made it clear as he prepared for his funeral that the president was not welcome. McCain’s friends insisted that he did not have a grudge against Trump—he just didn’t respect him. The funeral arrangements weren’t meant to critique the president, they said. But any call for civility and compromise at a time when the sitting president so blatantly rejected those values was inevitably going to appear as a message directed at the White House.
Part of the reason some observers see a political tinge is McCain’s own sometimes sharp, sometimes subtle language in the weeks and months before his death. Most notably, he penned a farewell statement, read on Monday by an aide to reporters, that seemed to be an indictment of Trumpism:
We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.
Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.
Trump has not been blind to the messages embedded in McCain’s farewell, and he has reportedly been stewing in his frustration. After McCain’s death, Trump resisted pressure from his advisers to issue a formal statement praising the senator, instead arguing initially that a tweet would be enough. The tweet he produced did not address McCain’s legacy or character, and some Trump critics became outraged by the initial decision to return the White House flag to full-staff two days after McCain’s death. The Times reports that there is a plan for Trump on the day of McCain’s funeral:
By the weekend, when virtually all of official Washington—Democrats and Republicans alike—gathers at the National Cathedral for a nationally televised farewell, Mr. Trump is expected to have retreated to Camp David, where White House aides hope he will contain his anger at the attention being lavished on Mr. McCain.
McCain made other decisions—which, according to the Times, he pondered in weekly meetings with trusted aides starting just after his diagnosis last summer—related to memorial events that have raised speculation about messaging. His pallbearers include close friends, such as Warren Beatty and Joe Biden (who also spoke at his memorial service in Arizona on Thursday). Another pallbearer, a more politically charged choice, is a Russian dissident named Vladimir Kara-Murza.
Kara-Murza, one of Vladimir Putin’s most successful and outspoken critics, twice suffered organ failure from apparent poisoning. McCain had known Kara-Murza for more than seven years, according to Politico, and during that time they openly supported each other in their criticism of Putin and his anti-democratic tendencies. McCain once called Kara-Murza a “personal hero” and worked closely with him to enforce the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which placed sanctions on Russia for human rights violations.
McCain made no secret of his belief that Trump is too cozy with Putin, and his inclusion of a Russian dissident among his pallbearers appears pointed given that Trump has sided with Russia, over his own intelligence agencies, amid an investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference.
Whether onlookers view McCain’s final arrangements as noble political messaging, juicy slights, or some combination, McCain was aware that it all fit in with his reputation as a “maverick.” He knew it when he planned every detail for his services, from his service in Arizona to commemorations in D.C., and his final ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. At the memorial service in Arizona, his casket was aptly carried out of the church to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”