PHOENIX – On Thursday, just as he had done countless times in nearly four decades of serving the state, Sen. John McCain was flown out of Arizona, bound for Washington, D.C. But his 12:50 p.m. departure was his last.
During a memorial service at North Phoenix Baptist Church shortly before his casket was flown to the nation’s capital for more services and Maryland burial, Arizona had one last chance to say goodbye to the state’s “favorite adopted son.” Close friends, including former Vice President Joe Biden, told stories about McCain’s humor, his values and his passion for the state and the country.
McCain’s wife, Cindy, and his seven children stood in the front row of the church, stoic and dressed in black, as the casket, cloaked in the American flag, was brought in. Behind them stood nearly 30 former and current members of Congress, dignitaries from around the country, players and staff members of Arizona’s sports teams and about 1,000 members of the public.
Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver for the Cardinals, said he and the senator connected, despite the obvious differences between the two, joking that McCain lacked his flowing dreadlocks.
“While some might find our friendship out of the ordinary, it was a perfect example of what made him an icon of American politics,” Fitzgerald said. “Ours was an unlikely friendship, but it was one I will cherish.”
McCain, an avid sports fan and supporter of Arizona teams, often would text Fitzgerald and tell him to “pick it up” during low points in the season. The star said McCain’s dedication to the people he served continues to inspire him.
“Your devotion to the people of Arizona, the nation and your convictions are an example for us all to follow,” he said. “Senator McCain, we will miss the blessings of being in your presence, but we will never forget your impact. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Other close friends, including former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods and businessman Tommy Espinoza, said McCain didn’t care about his friends’ political party, only their ideals.
Espinoza, godfather to McCain’s youngest son, Jimmy, told the story of McCain running for Senate the first time, in 1986. He asked Espinoza, a longtime Democrat, to co-chair his campaign, and he agreed.
Biden, who served as VP to President Barack Obama, who defeated McCain in 2008, called McCain family.
“I always thought of John as a brother. We had a lot of family fights,” Biden said, spurring laughter.
He first met McCain when the Vietnam veteran and former POW was the Navy’s liaison to the Senate, and he spent much of his time traveling the globe with McCain.
“For some reason, we hit it off at the beginning. We were both full of dreams and ambitions,” Biden recalled. “Out of this came a great friendship that transcended any political differences we had or later developed, because we knew the same thing: Politics is personal. It’s about trust. I trusted John with my life and I think he trusted me.”
Biden – whose son, Beau, died of the same brain cancer that took the senator – then addressed Cindy McCain and the rest of the family. Even though the pain they felt was sharp and hollowing, their tears eventually would give way to remembering the father and husband with a smile, he said.
Fighting back tears, Biden quoted “Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s tragedy of a prince who mourned his father: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
He paused and stepped away from the lectern, his voice breaking but his words sure about his close friend.
“We shall not see his like again.”
As members of the Armed Forces Body Bearer Team moved McCain’s casket to the waiting hearse, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” played over the church sound system. The crowd then began to file out.
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