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McCain's National Memorial Service


A week of public tributes to the late Sen. John McCain ended today at Washington National Cathedral. Political leaders and other dignitaries from across the political spectrum gathered to mourn McCain, who died last Saturday at his ranch in Arizona after ending treatment for brain cancer. Along with mourning the loss, though, they came to celebrate together McCain's four-plus decades of public service. The sprawling cathedral has been the site of many major events, including inaugural prayer services and memorials for presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

NPR's Kelsey Snell was there, and she has this report.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Even in death, John McCain wanted to send America a message. And, after a week of remembrances and celebrations, the event at Washington National Cathedral was as much a memorial as a challenge to America's political leaders to abandon petty squabbles and focus on national service. The theme rang out in every speech, including the deeply personal and sharply political eulogy from his daughter Meghan.


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: She was the first to speak, and it set the tone for the next two and a half hours. Speakers, including former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, honored John McCain as a father, a naval aviator, a senator and as a statesman. And they did not hesitate to contrast that image with the tone of politics today. Former President Barack Obama repeated the theme as he, like Meghan McCain, made veiled references to President Trump and an era of politics that have grown coarse.


BARACK OBAMA: So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage.

SNELL: The message was not a mistake. McCain personally orchestrated this week. He asked friends and rivals to remember him honestly, not just fondly. And they did. They spoke of bitter battles over policy and McCain's famously salty language as often as they talked of his warmth and humor. Former President George W. Bush told stories about their hard-fought political history. He said McCain was sometimes frustrating, but beneath their intense clashes was respect. Bush made another not-so-subtle reference to Trump, saying about McCain...


GEORGE W. BUSH: He respected the dignity inherent in every life - a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators. Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power - could not abide bigots and swaggering despots. There was something deep inside him that made him stand up for the little guy, to speak for forgotten people in forgotten places.

SNELL: Many of the speeches centered around finding ways to carry forward on McCain's legacy of tenacity and dedication. He served first as a Navy pilot, flying bombing missions in Vietnam. He was a prisoner of war for five and a half years and carried the scars of torture until he died. He served in Congress and in the Senate and ran twice for president and lost. The stories told in his memorial centered mainly on his ability to return from adversity, both personal and political. For Meghan McCain, remembering that spirit means emulating her father's advice on how to mark his death.


MCCAIN: When my father got sick (sobbing), and I asked him what he wanted me to do with this eulogy, he said, show them how tough you are.

SNELL: John McCain will be buried Sunday in a private service on the grounds of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.