Politics

Former Rival Bush Remembers McCain as ‘a Man With a Code’

'The world is smaller for his departure,' 43rd president says

Former President George W. Bush leaves the altar after speaking during the funeral service for Sen. John McCain at the National Cathedral on Saturday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Updated 12:24 p.m. | Former President George W. Bush recalled in Sen. John McCain’s memorial on Saturday how their once-bitter rivalry “melted away.”

“In the end, I got to enjoy one of life’s great gifts: the friendship of John McCain. And I’ll miss him,” Bush said, describing the Arizona Republican as a “a man with a code” who respected his political opponents.

Bush offered a message about how he expects McCain's legacy will endure, saying one thing he did as an influential political voice was to “insist we’re better than this, America is better than this.”

“If we’re ever tempted to forget who we are, to grow weary of our cause, John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder, ‘We’re better than this. America is better than this,’ Bush said at Washington’s National Cathedral. “The world is smaller for his departure.”

Watch: Bush, Obama Eulogize Former Political Rival and Friend, John McCain

With a grin and his signature Texas drawl, the former chief executive described his former rival this way: “He was courageous. He was honest, no matter who it offended. Presidents were not spared. He was honorable, always recognizing that his opponents were … patriots and human beings. He loved freedom with a passion of man who knew its absence.”

“In one epic life was written the courage and greatness of our country,” Bush said. “For John and me there was a personal journey. Back in the day, he could frustrate me. And I know he would say the same thing about me. But he also made me better.”

[Sen. John McCain, 1936-2018 | Roll Call's Complete Coverage]

Bush told a tale of preparing backstage for the final debate of his political career, in Phoenix in 2004 against then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

The former president said he was alone “trying to gather some thoughts in the holding room. I felt a presence. Opened my eyes and six inches from my face was McCain, who yelled, ‘Relax! Relax!’”

Bush said it was an “honor” to deliver one of the eulogies at the service, saying “a man who rarely rested is laid to rest … like the silence after a mighty roar.”

Bush and McCain waged a tough campaign for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination. McCain hammered Bush by 18 percentage points in New Hampshire, a state he often referred to with affection, until the race turned personal in South Carolina.

McCain’s wife, Cindy and adopted daughter were attacked, and the former Navy pilot was accused by some groups of committing treason while he was detained and tortured by North Vietnamese troops after being shot down.

Watch: Meghan McCain’s Tearful, Emotional Tribute to Her Father

The Bush campaign denied any involvement, and the eventual 43rd president once referred to the anti-McCain ad campaign as “kind of politics.”

[McCain’s ‘Iron Will’ Saluted as Late Senator Celebrated at Capitol]

McCain was a major proponent of Bush’s controversial Iraq war, but often critical of how the president and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ran it. In February 2007, for instance, the late lawmaker dubbed Bush’s initial management of the Iraq conflict “a train wreck.”

The casket with McCain’s body entered the majestic National Cathedral under the watch of a military honor guard at 10:07 a.m. Under grey and sometimes-rainy skies on a late-summer Saturday in Washington, McCain was slowly marched down the Capitol steps for the final time by members of the military before his wife, Cindy McCain, laid a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The service capped the late senator’s Washington sendoff, which resembled those typically reserved for presidents. As Cindy McCain, escorted by Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, returned to the motorcade that featured McCain’s hearse-carried casket, onlookers applauded.

The service began with Meghan McCain, the daughter of late Sen. John McCain, bringing up the white elephant in the large hall.

She issued a sharp rebuke of President Donald Trump — without naming him — at a service at which the McCain family made clear the president was not welcome.

She was echoing her father, who was at times one of the most vocal Republican critics of Trump’s policies and demeanor.

“We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness. The real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who lived lives of comfort and privilege.”

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