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Sen. John McCain Makes His Final Return To The U.S. Capitol

Aug 31, 2018
Originally published on August 31, 2018 7:22 pm
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A long line of people has stretched around the U.S. Capitol today. They've moved slowly, waiting patiently to pay their respects to John McCain, who is lying in state in the Capitol rotunda. He served in Congress for 35 years. And in a ceremony this morning, McCain's former colleagues recalled a senator who reached across the aisle as often as he seemed to pick fights. NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow has more.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Right as the hearse carrying John McCain's body parked in front of the Capitol, it began to rain. It didn't matter to the military pallbearers. They solemnly carried his casket, step by step, up into the Capitol rotunda and then placed it on the black catafalque first used by Abraham Lincoln.

Looking down on the ceremony, the statues of Americans like Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower. Like McCain, they were all war heroes. Unlike McCain, they all became president. Still, today and all this week McCain, is being sent off with the pomp and circumstance usually reserved for a commander in chief.

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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The president asked me to be here on behalf of a grateful nation to pay a debt of honor and respect.

DETROW: At yesterday's service in Arizona and tomorrow at the National Cathedral, McCain handpicked the speakers, who all seemed selected to send specific messages. That wasn't the case at the Capitol, where protocol set the program. So it included speakers like Vice President Mike Pence, who represented a White House McCain clashed with.

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PENCE: In my years in Congress and as vice president, we didn't always agree either. And he almost always noticed.

DETROW: McCain's family had made it clear they didn't want President Trump at any of this week's memorial events. Top Hill leaders also spoke. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell often found McCain and himself on the opposite side of an issue. The most high-profile example - McConnell standing at the front of the Senate last summer staring straight ahead as McCain killed the effort to repeal Obamacare with a defiant thumbs-down vote.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: I've long joked that his guards at the Hanoi Hilton probably needed group therapy after John was finished with them. Well, let's just say there were times when some of his Senate colleagues were tempted to form a support group of our own.

DETROW: But the two men were often on the same side, too, during their decades together in the Senate.

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MCCONNELL: I will miss a dear friend whose smile reminded us that service is a privilege and whose scars reminded us of the great cost that brave souls pay for our freedom.

DETROW: When the speeches ended, people began approaching the casket to pay their respects - first, McCain's family, then friends like former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. The Senate was next, followed by the House and then members of President Trump's Cabinet. After that, the long line of mourners who had lined up outside the Capitol began shuffling in, people like Joseph Freeman from Richmond, Va...

JOSEPH FREEMAN: I'm here to honor a comrade. I mean, you know, he served in Vietnam. He refused to be released early unless his fellow comrades were released, even though he had the pull, as far as his father and grandfather being, you know, Navy admirals and all. He's a great man.

DETROW: ...And Mary Bayat from Alexandria, Va.

MARY BAYAT: First of all, I'm not Republican. But he's the only one in Republican that I respect. And I always did. I thought it's my duty to come and show my respect and share this sorrow with the rest of the country.

DETROW: McCain will lie in state until Saturday, when his casket will be driven through Washington, past the Vietnam Memorial, to the National Cathedral. He's just the 31st American to be granted the honor. The first was Henry Clay. Like McCain, he was someone who tried and failed multiple times to reach the White House but who left his mark in Congress as one of the most iconic and important lawmakers of his era.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.