Official Washington gathered for a funeral to honour one of its favourite sons, John Sidney McCain.

It delivered for the country and the world an extraordinary, and in moments disquieting, repudiation of Donald Trump's presidency and today's politics.

Ringing through Washington National Cathedral were paeans to bipartisanship, compromise and civility of the sort that seem to be under daily assault from all corners of the US, especially from the White House.

The Republican senator's mourners, though sometimes angry, were also wistful and worried that what has been bludgeoned by the country's divisions and the President might never return. A common decency. A shared identity and values that transcend ideology, class or race. A toughness that shows itself in battle and service to nation rather than on Twitter. Each was touted as a key element of McCain's epic life.

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The full tableau of his funeral - which included the previous three presidents - also served as a melancholy last hurrah for the sort of global leadership that the US once took for granted.

Trump was absent and his name never invoked, but the entire service was animated by a sustained rebellion against the President's worldview and his singular brand of politics. The most stinging and personal rebuke came from McCain's distraught daughter, Meghan, who dispensed with diplomatic niceties and coded language to condemn Trump in a style as direct and raw as her father's.

"We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness," she said, gritting her teeth through the tears. "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 while he suffered and served."

When she fiercely declared that "the America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great," the generals, senators, former presidents and other world leaders who filled the pews burst into applause.

The family of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., follows as his casket is carried at the end of a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral. Photo / AP
The family of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., follows as his casket is carried at the end of a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral. Photo / AP

At virtually the same moment, Trump, who had spent the morning tweeting his grievances into a void, donned a white "Make America Great Again" cap and travelled in a presidential motorcade to his Virginia golf course. His move was unsurprising: Trump has spoken of McCain as though the senator was an enemy. McCain returned the sentiment by making it clear that the President was not welcome at the funeral.

Big Washington funerals are as much about the country and its politics as they are the person who is being remembered. Yesterday, speaker after speaker used McCain's life story - son of an admiral, hero of a lost war, long-serving senator and statesman - and the values that shaped his life to point up the shortcomings of Trump and the divisive, angry politics of the moment.

Two presidents, who each defeated McCain in bitter campaigns, used McCain's funeral as a moment to speak bluntly of their fears for the country and the state of American democracy.

"If we are 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 are better than this. America is better than this'," former President George W. Bush said. Former President Barack Obama said: "So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It's a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that."

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The funeral served as a robust and united defence of the Washington institutions that have been a cornerstone of American democracy and that Trump has sought to undermine. Sitting in the pews were the stewards of those institutions - the CIA, the Justice Department and the news media, among others - that Trump regularly attacks.

Earlier, as McCain's funeral cortege made its way from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the cathedral, Trump tweeted that he had been wronged by the court system, attacked the "Fake Dossier" that he insists the Russia investigation is based on, and misspelled Obama's first name.

Meghan McCain, Bridget McCain, Cindy McCain, James McCain and Jack McCain, at the US Capitol. Photo / AP
Meghan McCain, Bridget McCain, Cindy McCain, James McCain and Jack McCain, at the US Capitol. Photo / AP

He also relied on a surrogate to attack his adversary. In an unmistakable swipe at McCain, who mounted two unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency, longtime Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson tweeted: "@realDonaldTrump ran for @POTUS ONE time and WON! Some people will never recover from that. #SorryNotSorry Yes, #MAGA." But apart from that, Trump seemed isolated, the mourners in the cathedral a lopsided counterpoint.

Listening impassively to the criticisms of the man they serve, were several members of Trump's Administration, including Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis - both former Marine Corps generals who share McCain's ethic of selfless service. Also in attendance were Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Much of the praise for McCain focused on his vision of the US as a global superpower and moral beacon, positions Trump has been accused of abandoning. Yet more than ever before in the post-World War II era, McCain's vision of the US as the bulwark against tyrants, guarantor of global stability and refuge for the oppressed is out of favour. It fell to Bush and Obama, both imperfect advocates, to defend McCain's view of the US obligation to promote freedom. McCain championed an American exceptionalism that contrasts with Trump's routine praise for some of the world's most brutal dictators.

McCain regularly blasted Obama for his "total lack of leadership" and reluctance to use military force. Obama was reacting to the excesses and imperial overreach of the Bush presidency.

Obama mentioned McCain's frequently stinging critiques. "While John and I disagreed on all kinds of foreign policy issues, we stood together on America's role as the one indispensable nation. We never doubted we were on the same team."

The last time Washington held a funeral of this magnitude was in January 2007, when many of the same figures gathered to say goodbye to former President Gerald Ford. Speakers praised Ford for calming a nation at war with itself after the Watergate scandal, the divisive Vietnam War and Nixon's impeachment.

Yesterday, no one was hailing McCain as America's saviour. Instead, they seemed to be mourning a man whose life epitomised so much of what had been lost.

"You were an exception," Meghan McCain said. "You gave us an ideal to strive for."

That ideal seemed impossibly distant.

President George W. Bush

Former President George W. Bush. Photo / AP
Former President George W. Bush. Photo / AP

On McCain's death:

"Some lives are so vivid, it is difficult to imagine them ended. Some voices are so vibrant and distinctive, it is hard to think of them stilled. A man who seldom rested is laid to rest. And his absence is tangible, like the silence after a mighty roar."

On their friendship:

"We sometimes talked of that intense period like football players remembering a big game. In the process, rivalry melted away. In the end, I got to enjoy one of life's great gifts: the friendship of John McCain. And I will miss him."

On McCain's humanitarianism:

"He respected the dignity inherent in every life - a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators. 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."

On politics today:

"If we are 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 are better than this. America is better than this."

President Barack Obama

Former President Barack Obama. Photo / AP
Former President Barack Obama. Photo / AP

On McCain asking him to speak at his funeral:

"What better way to get a last laugh than to make George [Bush] and I say nice things about him to a national audience. And most of all, it showed a largeness of spirit, an ability to see past differences in search of common ground."

On bipartisanship:

"He understood that if we get in the habit of bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our democracy will not work. That's why he was willing to buck his own party at times. That's why he championed a free and independent press."

On America's greatness:

"John understood ... that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our bloodline, not on what we look like, what our last names are, it's not based on where our parents or grandparents came from ... but on adherence to a common creed: that all of us are created equal, endowed ... with certain inalienable rights."

On politics:

"So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It's a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that."