PHOENIX — On what would have been John McCain’s 82nd birthday, friends and family of the late senator gathered at the Arizona Capitol on Wednesday for the first of five days of public and private events honoring the Republican senator’s life.
McCain died Saturday of brain cancer at age 81. His body will lie in state Wednesday at the state capitol, where several of his former colleagues will deliver tributes during an afternoon memorial service before doors open for members of the public to pay their respects.
“It’s a big loss, and to have this on his birthday is a special time here at the capitol,” Sen. Jeff Flake, the junior senator from Arizona, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in an appearance shortly before the ceremony began.
Flake, who has spoken emotionally about McCain’s legacy in recent days, will deliver the benediction at Wednesday’s memorial service.
The list of speakers at the proceedings reflects the crossroads at which the Arizona Republican Party finds itself in the wake of McCain’s death and at a time when the conservative base is lurching rightward.
Flake, a vocal critic of President Trump who is retiring at the end of his current term, will be joined by a group of other lawmakers that represent the old guard of the party, including former senator Jon Kyl and former congressman Jim Kolbe.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) will also deliver a tribute. In the days after McCain’s burial on Sunday, Ducey will appoint a successor to the six-term senator, who will serve through 2020. The decision will have repercussions for the future of the party: Some have called for Ducey to appoint a moderate whose views are similar to McCain’s; while others have urged him to select a conservative, who takes a hard-line approach on immigration and other issues.
Wednesday morning, hours before the doors were to open, the state capitol was ringed with people. Several dozen Patriot Honor Guard bikers had staked out a corner of the parking lot, and state troopers stood guard beneath palm trees all around the circumference.
In front of the building, a thick column of white-uniformed Navy officers and other members of the military were already standing at attention. Across the street in the park, a scaffolding to support countless TV news crews rose two stories high.
All was quiet on the third floor of the Capitol, directly above the spot where McCain will lay on a catafalque, even though a dozen reporters had already shown up early.
Sonmez reported from Washington.