WASHINGTON—Not long after Sen. John McCain learned last summer that he had terminal brain cancer, he began convening meetings every Friday in his Capitol Hill office with a group of trusted aides. The subject was his funeral.
He obsessed over the music, selecting the Irish ballad “Danny Boy” and several patriotic hymns. He choreographed the movement of his coffin from Arizona, his home state, to Washington. And in April, when he knew the end was coming, he began reaching out to Republicans, Democrats and even a Russian dissident with requests that they deliver eulogies and serve as pallbearers.
By the time he died Saturday, McCain had carefully stage-managed a four-day celebration of his life— but what was also an unmistakable rebuke to President Donald J. Trump and his agenda. For years, Trump had used Twitter and the presidential bully pulpit to mock and condemn the senator from Arizona. In death, McCain found a way to have the last word, even quietly making it clear through friends that Trump was not welcome at the services.
“I think it’s fair to say that they have a very different view of this country and what this country means, here and abroad,” said Mark Salter, the senator’s longtime friend and coauthor who sat with McCain—often with a lump in his throat—during the many discussions about his looming death. “His overall message was: ‘It doesn’t have to be this shitty.’”
The series of events honoring McCain is the kind of grandiose spectacle that is normally reserved for someone who became president, not someone who twice failed to do so. Friends said that McCain was surprised by the level of interest in his death even as he planned it. When advisers suggested that his coffin should lie in state at the Arizona Capitol, McCain said he believed the legislature would never approve such a rare honor for him, recalled Rick Davis, who had been at McCain’s side for decades and served as his 2008 campaign chairman.
“Every inch of the way, he underestimated what he thought this would be about,” Davis said.
The memorial events this week began in Arizona on Wednesday, when McCain’s body was taken to the Capitol, and will continue on Thursday at a service at North Phoenix Baptist Church. The procession will then shift to the nation’s capital, when McCain’s coffin will arrive at an air base outside Washington as the president holds one of his raucous, campaign-style rallies for supporters in Indiana.
By the weekend, when virtually all of official Washington—Democrats and Republicans alike—gathers at the National Cathedral for a nationally televised farewell, 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 McCain.
McCain’s closest friends insisted this week that the senator did not harbor a personal grudge toward the president, even at the end. They described him as mostly interested in promoting the cause of bipartisanship and compromise that, as a “maverick” lawmaker, he had carefully fashioned into one of the most durable political brands of the last half-century.
“He wanted to reinforce his message that there is more that unites us than separates us,” said Steve Duprey, a businessman from New Hampshire.
But they also acknowledged what has been plain to just about everyone since the two men repeatedly clashed, sometimes in the most personal ways, in recent years: McCain had little respect for the president.
As such, it was perhaps inevitable, they conceded, that a celebration of McCain’s worldview would be viewed as a critique of the president’s.
“Trump has been a catalyst for him to speak more strongly and more vigorously about the need for those things that Trump doesn’t do,” said John Lehman Jr., who served as secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan.
Lehman, who visited with McCain at his picturesque home near Sedona, Arizona, every month for the last year, said he did not believe the funeral arrangements were “directed against Trump.” But he added, “Trump was definitely a catalyst to get him focused on pushing those symbolic issues.”
Davis said the planning sessions in the senator’s office were so difficult for his aides that they often went to the bar afterward. But McCain treated the meetings with the dispassionate discipline of a campaign strategy session.
“It was as if he was dealing with someone else but himself,” Davis recalled of the meetings, which included himself, Salter and Carla Eudy, the senator’s longest-serving aide. Cindy McCain, his wife, sometimes called in. When she didn’t, it fell to Davis to fill her in.
In the spring, McCain began the uncomfortable task of asking people to speak for him after he died. In April he approached former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, a bipartisan request to the men who defeated him in his quests for the White House.
But prominent politicians will not be the only participants. Pallbearers include friends McCain made over the years, including actor Warren Beatty and Frederick Smith, the founder of FedEx. Larry Fitzgerald, the wide receiver who played for McCain’s beloved Arizona Cardinals, was asked to speak at Thursday’s memorial service in Phoenix. Some received messages by phone, and others were asked in person. Former Vice President Joe Biden was among those summoned to Sedona, when McCain began executing his funeral plans with a newfound urgency. They spoke for hours before McCain asked Biden to deliver a eulogy at his funeral in Arizona. Biden immediately accepted, said someone close to the vice president, and he will also serve as a pallbearer Saturday in Washington. Jim Mattis, Trump’s secretary of defense, said he had been asked long ago to be a pallbearer at the final event, a private service that will be held Sunday at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, where McCain is to be buried. “I’ve known that for months,” Mattis said of the senator’s request. “And it’s an honor.”
Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian activist who survived two poisoning attempts for his opposition to Vladimir Putin’s government, said that McCain, who was widely seen as one of the Russian leader’s fiercest detractors, had asked him to be a pallbearer in April.
“He spoke the truth regardless of party or political situations,” Kara-Murza said of McCain. “That was his defining characteristic.”
In Washington, a town where Trump has given Putin an open invitation to visit, Kara-Murza said that McCain’s choice of a Russian pallbearer — one repeatedly brought to the brink of death for challenging his country’s authoritarian brand of politics—was “actually pretty symbolic.”
McCain’s career in politics was built around his reputation for that kind of trademark bluntness. During the 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns, he spent hours talking with reporters — on the record — sitting on couches in the back of a bus that he strategically named the “Straight Talk Express.”
In death, some of his messages were equally direct. On Monday Davis read McCain’s final, pull-no-punches remarks to reporters. It escaped no one that McCain was talking about the current president.
“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,” McCain wrote. “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.”
Other messages during the week have been less explicit. But Trump clearly took offense anyway. After McCain died, the president refused for two days to issue a formal statement praising his service to the nation. And he ordered the White House flag to fly at half-staff for the week only after pressure from his staff, Republican lawmakers and veterans groups.
Inside the White House, the president’s aides briefly considered the optics of hosting events—including Thursday’s rally just as the senator’s body is scheduled to be in transit to Washington—but ultimately decided that they could not hold up White House proceedings for several days.Several aides, battle-hardened by constant outside controversies, concluded that they could weather the criticism directed at them over the White House response to McCain, according to two people familiar with the planning who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The president, who has privately groused that the news media has been much more critical toward him than toward McCain, ultimately believes the will of the world bends to him, not the other way around, one former adviser said. Trump particularly delights in attending political rallies and rarely cancels them—in February, he canceled and quickly rescheduled one after a school shooting in Florida. But this weekend, it will be McCain, not Trump, who will draw a crowd and capture the attention of the nation, and the world.
“He was hoping,” Lehman said, “that all of these things would help to bridge gaps and smooth some of the bitterness and divides that he really deplored so much.”