Two years ago today, September 2, 2018, Senator John McCain was buried on the grounds of his beloved U.S. Naval Academy. John’s family asked me to document his last journey from Arizona, to Washington, D.C., and to his final resting place in Annapolis. It was an honor for me to do so.
There were many things to like about John McCain, but the ride with him wasn’t always smooth. Those of us who knew him were keenly aware that he wasn’t perfect. John could be abrupt, cantankerous, stubborn, temperamental, and opinionated. But pitted against the better angels of his character, those were only minor defects!
I first photographed McCain when he became a Congressman in 1983, but didn’t get to know him until his second term as a U.S. Senator from Arizona. In 1997 I took a photo of him and Sen. John Kerry just off the Senate floor that remains one of my favorite images. It shows two Vietnam vets, a Democrat and a Republican, locked in a true bi-partisan moment. Both would later run unsuccessfully for president, but first and foremost, they remained friends.
One of the many things I liked about McCain was his ease with the press, and their access to him. You could always pop into his Senate office through a side door to say hello. On one occasion I showed up as McCain was yelling at someone on the phone. He didn’t miss a beat, waved me in, and just kept up his diatribe. I of course made a few shots.
In 2000 I was under contract for Newsweek. I told Managing Editor Jon Meacham that I would like to cover McCain’s Quixotesque run for the Republican nomination against Gov. George W. Bush. I knew that Bush’s well-funded juggernaut would probably prevail, but McCain’s Wild West-like adventure would be a lot more fun to photograph. I of course thought that there was an outside chance that McCain could win, and that would put me right in the center of one helluva political story.
I was permanent party on the Straight Talk Express, McCain’s campaign bus. He crisscrossed New Hampshire, and when not giving speeches, sat in the back of the bus talking non-stop with the reporters who were covering him. It was refreshing, and a real look at Democracy in action. And then a miracle happened. McCain thrashed Bush in the New Hampshire primary, running up the widest margin in that state since Ronald Reagan defeated Bush's father 20 years earlier. Wow! I was in the room when it happened, and photographed the McCain family’s display of utter shock at the results. But the overwhelming Bush forces were then marshalled against McCain in South Carolina where they fought dirty, and in the parlance of Vietnam, napalmed McCain, and retook the momentum. The McCain campaign never recovered, and he bowed out of the race on March 9, 2000. The black and white photo that I took of him with wife Cindy standing by his side above Sedona, puffy clouds in the background as he conceded, appeared to be an, “if Ansel Adams-photographed-politics-like moment.” Election night 2000 basically ended in a tie, and even though George W. Bush ultimately prevailed, I think McCain would have defeated Vice President Al Gore straight up by ten points. We’ll never know.
McCain continued his work in the Senate, and as always was up-front and transparent. My son Byron Kennerly was an intern in his press office during the summer of 2003, and recalled an instance where McCain had accidentally sideswiped fellow Vietnam vet Sen. Chuck Hagel’s car. The press staff debated whether or not they should try to keep it quiet, but McCain said hell no, put it out there, I don’t care if it makes me look bad. They did, McCain looked fine, but remained a bad driver.
The presidential dream didn’t end for McCain after he lost to Bush. in 2008 he ran in the general election as the Republican nominee for president against fellow Senator Barack Obama and lost. McCain was bloodied, but as usual, unbowed. He returned to the senate. On July 19 of 2017, it was announced that Senator McCain was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. Eight days later he dramatically cast the deciding vote in the senate that prevented Obama’s Affordable Care Act from being overturned. A little more than a year later, on August 25, 2018, he lost the cancer battle, and died. His story, of course, doesn’t end there. In his final days, among the many things that he attended to, he decided who would eulogize him.
Who else but John McCain would invite the two men who beat him out for the biggest job on the planet to say a few words about him at his funeral? And who else but John McCain would make sure that the man sitting in the oval office at the time would not be attending his farewell?
Former President Barack Obama, in his eulogy at the National Cathedral, captured John’s wry and dry wit. He said, “So for someone like John to ask you, while he’s still alive, to stand and speak of him when he’s gone, is a precious and singular honor. Now, when John called me with that request earlier this year, I’ll admit sadness and also a certain surprise . . . To start with, John liked being unpredictable, even a little contrarian. He had no interest in conforming to some prepackaged version of what a senator should be, and he didn’t want a memorial that was going to be prepackaged either. It also showed John’s disdain for self-pity. He had been to hell and back, and he had somehow never lost his energy, or his optimism, or his zest for life. So cancer did not scare him, and he would maintain that buoyant spirit to very end, too stubborn to sit still, opinionated as ever, fiercely devoted to his friends and most of all, to his family. It showed his irreverence – his sense of humor, and a little bit of a mischievous streak. After all, what better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience?”
Another of his political opponents whom he invited to talk was former President George W. Bush, who defeated McCain for the Republican nomination for president in 2000. Bush said, “Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots. There was something deep inside him that made him stand up for the little guy – to speak for forgotten people in forgotten places . . .” A friend said, “He can’t stand to stay in the same experience.” One of his books ended with the words: “And I moved on.” John has moved on. He would probably not want us to dwell on it. But we are better for his presence among us. The world is smaller for his departure. And we will remember him as he was: unwavering, undimmed, unequaled.”
The disinvited one, President Donald J. Trump, had this to say about the event. “I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted, which as president I had to approve,” Trump told a crowd at in Ohio. “I don’t care about this. I didn’t get a thank you, that’s OK. We sent him on the way. But I wasn’t a fan of John McCain." That prompted this memo from the Cathedral spokesperson: “Washington National Cathedral was honored to host the funeral service for Sen. John McCain. All funerals and memorial services at the Cathedral are organized by the family of the deceased; only a state funeral for a former president involves consultation with government officials. No funeral at the Cathedral requires the approval of the president or any other government official.” Take that Donnie.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a dear friend of John McCain, said this at services in Phoenix.
“My name is Joe Biden. I’m a Democrat. And I loved John McCain . . . But the way I look at it, the way I thought about it, was that I always thought of John as a brother. We had a hell of a lot of family fights! Now John is going to take his rightful place in a long line of extraordinary leaders in this nation's history. Who in their time and in their way stood for freedom and stood for liberty and have made the American story the most improbable and most hopeful and most enduring story on earth. I know John said he hoped he played a small part in that story. John, you did much more than that, my friend. To paraphrase Shakespeare, we shall not see his like again."
The end was personal, painful, and a most dignified and perfect sendoff. His casket was carried from the Naval Academy Chapel past rows of Midshipmen who willingly gave up their holidays to be there. At the gravesite, in the final moments before his casket was lowered into the ground, his wife Cindy bid him an emotional adieu. A great love was captured here, and as difficult as it was, I took the photo to memorialize that. The photo would have remained private, but Mrs. McCain later approved its use, which I thought was another brave act on her part. They were one together.
Secretary of Defense and former Marine General James Mattis privately addressed McCain’s immediate family after the burial in Annapolis. He quoted Major General Henry Lee’s eulogy for George Washington, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” He said there were very few people who you could say this about, but John was one of them.
So John McCain joins my list of the most unforgettable people I have known and photographed. I suppose we should just let him rest in peace now, but you know what? That isn’t the way he would have wanted it! I’m pretty sure that McCain is still raising hell, even though he’s in heaven. Cheers to you, JSM, you were the best of the best.