Thousands line up for McCain, called one of our ‘bravest souls’

Thousands of people spent hours in line in steamy Washington heat for the chance to file by the casket of Sen. John McCain in the Capitol Rotunda and pay their respects. (Photo by Vandana Ravikumar/Cronkite News)

Umbrellas used to ward off rain in the morning were providing shade in the sweltering afternoon that left several mourners needing medical treatment from the heat. (Photo by Renata Clo/Cronkite News)

By mid-afternoon, lines to get in to the Capitol to see McCain’s casket snaked up and down First Street in front of the Library of Congress, with wait times of two to three hours. (Photo by Renata Clo/Cronkite News)

A brief downpour Friday – just as Sen. John McCain’s casket was arriving at the Capitol drenched those waiting in line to get into the Rotunda and pay their respects. (Photo by Daniel Perle/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Arizona Sen. John McCain lay in state Friday in the U.S. Capitol, honored by the nation’s top elected officials and then by thousands who waited in wilting heat for the chance to file past his flag-draped casket.

The packed Rotunda was silent as Cindy McCain laid her head on her husband’s casket and the senator’s 106-year-old mother, Roberta, crossed herself.

Tributes from Vice President Mike Pence and congressional leaders – Speaker Paul Ryan called McCain “one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced” – were followed by hours of mourners filing past.

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The casket, resting on the same catafalque that held Abraham Lincoln’s casket in the Rotunda, was to remain overnight under the watch of an honor guard before being carried to Washington National Cathedral for services Saturday.

But not before thousands of mourners, from all over the country and from nations around the world, shuffled past for a brief moment of respect.

Most waited hours to get in, some being caught in a summer downpour, all braving the muggy August air that left some in need of medical treatment from the heat.

But Jim Mayer, a Vietnam veteran who stood in line for hours on two prosthetic legs, said it was worth the wait to honor McCain, who he called a personal hero and one of the best of the Vietnam veterans.

“He stood up for what was right, even if it was unpopular,” Mayer said. “He was a champion for doing the right thing.”

Jonathan Eisenmann said he moved from upstate New York to the Washington area to pursue a political career 17 years ago, inspired by McCain’s patriotism and leadership. Eisenmann, in a red, white and blue striped shirt and red shorts, said his career in politics never panned out, but McCain kept his faith in politics alive.

-Cronkite News video by Ian Solomon

“He wasn’t afraid to do what he thought was right, not what people told him to do,” Eisenmann said. “That really resonated with me. He wasn’t afraid to just do what he genuinely believed.”

This was a common sentiment inside and outside the Rotunda, where McCain was called a patriot, a maverick and a true American.

In a morning ceremony, current and former members of Congress, Cabinet members, mayors and governors – including Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey – packed the Rotunda in what was for many a standing-room only event.

McCain’s staff and family sat as lawmakers eulogized the six-term senator.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recalled McCain’s fighting spirit that echoed the spirit of the nation.

House Speaker Paul Ryan referenced a quote by Ernest Hemingway that he said embodied McCain: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

No one, Ryan said, was stronger at their broken places than McCain. He encouraged others to learn from the legacy McCain left behind, serving their country fearlessly and courageously.

“This is one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced,” Ryan said. “However you choose to do your part, I hope you do it the way he did.”

Vice President Mike Pence was sent to speak on behalf of President Donald Trump, a frequent McCain antagonist. Pence and his wife laid a wreath beside the casket, as did the Republican and Democratic leaders, first of the Senate and then of the House.

Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush – both foes of McCain’s during his presidential bids – are scheduled to speak at Saturday’s service at the cathedral.

The pairings were a notable touch of bipartisanship and forgiveness in the ceremonies – largely planned by McCain – that reflected legacies of his that many touched on.

Victor Gamas, 20, a Nogales native, campaigned for Sen. John McCain in southern Arizona in 2016. After that, he also had the opportunity to intern for the senator’s office while at Georgetown University. He said he was happy seeing people from different backgrounds show up for McCain. (Photo by Renata Cló/Cronkite News)
Warren Dennis, 24, and his friend Curtis Baxter, 42, just out of the Capitol Rotunda after paying their respects to the late Sen. John McCain. Baxter’s father was also a veteran, who died years ago. “One way of respecting him was to come out and respect John McCain,” he said. (Photo by Vandana Ravikumar/Cronkite News)
Maryland resident Gus Santos, 44, is originally from Brazil and said he admired the work that the late Sen. John McCain did on behalf of immigrants, and because he believed McCain was what he called a true patriot.“He always put country above politics,” Santos said outside the Capitol. (Photo by Renata Cló/Cronkite News)
Onyekwelu Nwadiuto and his family were in Washington for the weekend from Nigeria, where he said Sen. John McCain's death was felt. Even though they were only in town for two days, Nwadiuto said the family knew it had to make time to visit the Capitol and honor McCain. (Photo by Vandana Ravikumar/ Cronkite News)
Jonathan Eisenmann said that Arizona Sen. John McCain inspired him to become more involved in politics. McCain "wasn't afraid to do what he thought was right, not what people told him to do," said Eisenmann as he waited in line to file past McCain's casket in the Capitol Rotunda. (Photo by Vandana Ravikumar/Cronkite News)
Lauren and Jordan Mayo waited in line for two hours, in their Navy uniforms, with their 4-year-old daughter, who they hoped would learn lessons about patriotism and leadership from Sen. John McCain. "As much as our 4-year-old can understand, I think she got it," Lauren said. (Photo by Vandana Ravikumar/Cronkite News)
Jim Mayer, 72, is a Vietnam veteran with two prosthetic legs but that did not deter him from standing in line for two hours for a chance to pay his respects to the late Sen. John McCain, whom Mayer admired for for his courage. “He was one of my personal heroes,” Mayer said. (Photo by Renata Cló/ Cronkite News)
Veterans Lance Bell, 34, and Michael Herron, 41, said they came to pay their respects to Sen. John McCain because of how much they admired him as a politician and as a veteran. Bell called McCain "a dying breed in the Republican Party. I feel like the Republicans' soul just died." (Photo by Renata Cló/Cronkite News)

Lance Bell, who was standing in line with fellow veteran Michael Herron, said McCain’s bipartisanship was one of the things he respected most about the senator, and something he wishes more politicians would strive for.

“I think McCain was a dying breed in the Republican Party,” Bell said. “I feel like the Republicans’ soul just died.”

People started lining up outside the Capitol at 7 a.m., prepared with umbrellas for the downpour that started just as the hearse carrying McCain’s body arrived around 10:30. The rain only lasted about 20 minutes, but the umbrellas proved to be a good idea, shading people from the sun while they stood in line, which grew as the day wore on.

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“I’m glad to see people from different backgrounds and to see support for McCain outside of Arizona,” said Nogales native Victor Gamas, a 20-year-old Georgetown University student who interned for McCain and worked on his 2016 campaign.

The line took anywhere from two to three hours to get through, and it scared some away. George Jacobsen, 21, an American University student from Florida, said he “wanted to be a part of history, but that line is crazy.”

For many others, however, the few moments spent with McCain made the wait worthwhile.

“America is lucky to have people like John McCain in the government. He always spoke from experience and from a love for his country,” said Onyekwelu Nwadiuto, who was in town from Nigeria with his family.

Even though they were only here for two days, Nwadiuto said he knew they had to make time to honor McCain. He said McCain’s death resonated with his community in Africa, who had been watching his work for years.

“We’ll miss him and his global leadership,” he said. “He was always someone we can trust.”

-Cronkite News video by Renata Clo

Gus Santos waited in line with a large bouquet of red, white and blue flowers to celebrate the work McCain did for the immigrant community. Santos, who now lives in Maryland, is originally from Brazil.

“McCain sided with the immigrants,” Santos said. “He put country above politics – he was a maverick.”

Curtis Baxter said he felt compelled to come from Virginia because his father was a prisoner during the Vietnam War, just like McCain, and he passed away when Baxter was young.

“One way of respecting him was to come out and respect John McCain,” Baxter said.

Lauren and Jordan Mayo waited for two hours in their Navy uniforms with their 4-year-old daughter. They were there to teach their daughter, who was wearing a dress covered in anchors, about patriotism and leadership from a man they believed embodied those characteristics best.

“She knows that he was a really great man and that we’re here to honor him,” Lauren said. “As much as our 4-year-old can understand, I think she got it.”

– Cronkite News reporters Renata Clo and Vandana Ravikumar contributed to this report.