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'He stood up for civility:' Senate pays tribute to ailing McCain

| Thursday, May 17, 2018, 7:48 p.m.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other lawmakers stop by an event on Capitol Hill during the debut of a documentary film about Sen. John McCain, in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, May 17, 2018. McCain, currently away from the Senate, was diagnosed in last July with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.
Associated Press
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other lawmakers stop by an event on Capitol Hill during the debut of a documentary film about Sen. John McCain, in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, May 17, 2018. McCain, currently away from the Senate, was diagnosed in last July with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

WASHINGTON — For more than two hours Thursday, a bipartisan gathering of senators paid tribute to Sen. John McCain with memorial-like speeches and the premier of a nearly 100-minute documentary of his momentous life.

Not once did anyone mention President Trump, whose feud with the ailing Republican senator has taken on new life as McCain's battle with brain cancer reaches a grave point.

Every senator who spoke at the Capitol Hill event had already said Trump or his aide should apologize for the crass “he's dying anyway” comment that a White House staffer uttered a week ago about McCain. So they used their time to praise the Arizona lawmaker's life in ways that spoke volumes about how most of Washington feels about the irascible senator.

“Patriotic sacrifice and principled service are not outdated notions or cliches. They are the building blocks of an extraordinary life,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the crowd. “I miss our friend.”

“He stood up for civility, he stood up for goodness,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., recounting the time the 2008 Republican presidential nominee defended Barack Obama late in the campaign as a “good man” after an audience member called Obama an “Arab.”

With almost the entire Senate in attendance, HBO executives then aired the premier of its new documentary, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” a retrospective of McCain's life that was filmed after his July diagnosis of brain cancer.

In interviews at his ranch in Sedona, Ariz., and his Senate office, McCain ignores Trump altogether and just talks about his own life. Intentionally or not, it serves as a direct contrast to the way Trump conducts himself.

While the film clearly lionizes McCain, it also focuses on his mistakes and failings. His daughter, Sidney McCain, describes how “awful” it was when McCain left his first wife, Carol, for Cindy McCain. Top advisers Rick Davis and Mark Salter describe how they persuaded McCain to not state his true feelings at the Confederate flag's presence at the South Carolina statehouse grounds just days before that pivotal primary in the 2000 campaign against George W. Bush.

Again and again, McCain, sitting on his porch looking out at the Arizona desert, admits his mistakes and asks the viewer's forgiveness — the sort of thing that Trump views as a weakness.

“It tells the story warts and all. The one thing that I like most about John McCain, he doesn't run away from the shortcomings,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has suggested Trump should consider apologizing to McCain on behalf of the White House.

The event, and the documentary, served as a living requiem for McCain, who last set foot in the Senate in December.

Three living presidents (Clinton, Bush and Obama), two secretaries of state (John Kerry and Hillary Clinton) and a vice president (Joe Biden) appear on screen to recall some of their most bitter fights and strongest bonds with McCain.

Kerry recounts their early feud after both came home from Vietnam on opposite sides of the war, only to serve together in the Senate on the committee that resolved the POW issue and led to the normalization of relations with Vietnam.

That move, given Bill Clinton's past dodging the draft, never could have happened without McCain's support, the former president says.

“It's time to move forward,” McCain told Clinton, according to Salter, the senator's longtime top aide who is now the co-author of his new book, “The Restless Wave.”

Meghan McCain, his daughter who has used her perch on ABCs “The View” to become a family spokeswoman, reveals the health risk in her father's decision to fly back to Washington after being diagnosed with brain cancer, so that he could cast a pair of crucial votes that ended with the GOP failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Meghan McCain let her father — and everyone else in his inner circle — know that she opposed the trip to Washington.

“It's my life and my choice,” the senator told his daughter.

Inside the hall, Graham saw Roberta McCain, the senator's 105-year-old mother, in the audience, explaining the roots of John McCain's stubbornness through his mother's trip 15 years ago to Europe.

“She's 90 years old — young,” Graham said. “She tries to get a rental car. They say you're too old. She went and bought the car and drove around Europe.”

The documentary ends with McCain's October speech in Philadelphia, where he excoriated those who espouse “some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”

It's the closest the documentary came to discussing Trump.

Just before that last clip, McCain talks about his love of the lead character in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Ernest Hemingway's story of an American, Robert Jordan, fighting with Spanish rebels against fascist forces.

Jordan fought for a “cause greater than self,” in McCain's words, a code that the senator has cited for decades. At the end Jordan is wounded and knows that he will only slow the escape of the rebels. He says goodbye to his love, Maria, and stays behind to maintain fire on the enemy so the others can escape.

It's the metaphor of McCain's life — the son of two Navy admirals whose own ascent was cut short by the torture he suffered as prisoner of war; a two-time aspirant to the presidency who never reached the Oval Office.

But McCain has no regrets.

“Robert Jordan is still my hero,” he said.

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