(Courthouse News) The powerful and unknown alike began gathering early Friday morning outside the U.S. Capitol to bid a final Washington farewell to the late U.S. Senator John McCain.
The six-term senator, who died Saturday after battling brain cancer, will will lie in state under the U.S. Capitol rotunda Friday for a ceremony and public visitation.
On Saturday, McCain’s procession pauses by the Vietnam Memorial and heads for Washington National Cathedral for a formal funeral service. At McCain’s request, two former presidents — Democrat Barack Obama and Republican George W. Bush — are expected to speak there.
People close to the White House and McCain’s family said President Donald Trump, who has mocked McCain for getting captured during the Vietnam War, has been asked to stay away from all events.
Instead, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the Capitol ceremony Friday, and other officials will represent the administration in Trump’s hard-to-miss absence. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis greeted the McCain family Thursday night when the late senator’s casket was flown into Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell,House Speaker Paul Ryan offered comments before Pence spoke.
The Rev. Patrick Conroy, chaplain for the House of Representatives, offered the invocation Friday morning.
“This day we honor a true American hero,” Conroy said. “He dedicated his entire life to public service as a vocation, first in the military and then in elected office. He placed himself directly in harm’s way during the Vietnam war and his great sacrifice of personal freedom is well known.”
“As we continue this celebration of honor, may all who attend to these proceedings transcend smallness and limitation and emerge as people desirous of being our best selves in service to all our brothers and sisters,” Conroy said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to hold back tears as delivered his remarks for McCain, a man he described as “devoted to the cause of human freedom.”
“Generations of Americans will continue to marvel at the man who lies before us: the cocky, handsome naval aviator who barely scraped through school and then fought for freedom in the skies,” McConnell said.
The lawmaker also reminisced Friday, often in good humor, about his former colleague’s ability to be either his “staunchest ally” or “most stubborn opponent.”
“At any moment he might be preparing an eloquent reflection on human liberty or a devastating joke with his signature cackle and John McCain glint in his eye. He had America’s fighting spirit, our noble idealism, our solemn patriotism, and our slightly irreverent streak, all rolled into one,” McConnell said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan memorialized the senator with a quote from Ernest Hemingway.
“Hemingway once wrote, ‘the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.’ No one was stronger at the broken places than John McCain. The brokenness was his ballast. He never lost the joy that time can dull or the edge that political life so often sands away,” Ryan said.
Ryan described the late senator as “one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced.”
Vice President Mike Pence upon first arriving in the Rotunda with wife, Karen, greeted McCain’s 106-year old mother, Roberta, who was also in attendance Friday.
“The president asked me to be here on behalf of a grateful nation to pay a debt of honor and respect to a man who served our country throughout his life in uniform and in public office. And it’s my great honor to be here,” Pence said.
The vice president recalled McCain’s history of service: the senator entered the U.S. military at 17 years old. He travelled the world as a naval aviator, Pence said, eventually shot down in Vietnam after his 23rd bombing run.
“He endured five and a half years of confinement and torture. Then and now, Americans marvel at the iron will of John McCain. But captivity did not diminish his sense of calling or his commitment to mission,” Pence said before quoting the senator.
“As he would later say, ‘I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone elses,’” Pence recalled.
“In my years in Congress, and as vice president, we didn’t always agree either and he almost always noticed. But his support for limited government, for tax reform, and support for our armed forces surely left our nation more prosperous and secure,” Pence said. “He will be missed. As President Trump said yesterday, we respect his service to the country.”
Rear Admiral Barry Black, the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, theRev. Patrick Conroy, the chaplain for the House of Representatives, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will also deliver remarks.
The rotunda will be open to the public from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. and a Capitol Police Guard of Honor will remain on duty overnight.
Earlier this year, the Reverend Billy Graham became one of only four “civilians” to have lain in honor at the Capitol Rotunda. Laying in honor is a different than lying in state. Civil rights leader Rosa Parks has lain in honor as well as two Washington, D.C. police officers, Jacob Chestnut Jr. and John Gibson, who were killed in the line of duty in 1998.
The last person to lie in state in the Capitol was Sen. Daniel Inuoye, D-Hawaii, the first Japanese-American member of Congress.
Former presidents Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Abraham Lincoln and a few others have also lain in state.
The first person ever lain in state was Kentucky Senator Henry Clay in 1852.
On Saturday, a private, full-dress service at the Washington National Cathedral. Roughly 2,500 guests are expected to attend.
Cindy McCain, the late senator’s wife, will lay a wreath at the Vietnam Veteran Memorial ahead of those services.
Vice President Joe Biden, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and actor Warren Beatty are expected to serve as pallbearers.
On Sunday, McCain will be interred at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland.