They recalled him as a statesman of unusual restraint and wisdom, a father with enough heart to befriend even his adversaries, a blue blood with a deep sense of public duty.
“He recognized that serving others enriched the givers’ soul. To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light,” another president, his son George W. Bush, said in his eulogy. “When the history books are written they will say that George H.W. Bush was a great president … a diplomat of unmatched skill … and a gentleman who executed the duties of his office with dignity and honor.”
The recollections entwined the personal and geopolitical as the nation bid farewell to the patriarch of one of its most enduring political dynasties amid elaborate pageantry at the Washington National Cathedral.
“Through our tears let us know the blessings of knowing and loving you, a great and noble man. The best father a son or daughter could have,” Bush said, unsuccessfully stifling a sob at the end.
Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of George and Laura, said her dad felt “a lot of pressure … to get it just right” in the eulogy. Her sister, Barbara Bush, said he’d been working on getting through it “without breaking down.”
Such occasions provide an opportunity to recall bygone eras, and to observe the passage of time in the graying hair of Cabinet secretaries and senior aides and ex-presidents.
Jimmy Carter, born four months after the elder Bush, is 94. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are 72, as is President Donald Trump. Barack Obama is the youngest member of the club at 57. All sat in a front pew, with Trump on the end and first lady Melania Trump between him and Obama.
The funeral marks the first time that Trump has been in the same place with all his living predecessors. He stood when the Bush family entered. George W. Bush shook his hand, then Melania Trump’s, and worked his way to the end, greeting all the presidents and first ladies. Laura Bush and the Trumps exchanged greetings.
The elder Bush, who died at age 94, left office 26 years ago after one term as president, eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, and stints in the U.S. House, as CIA director, chairman of the Republican Party and U.S. envoy to China. He was a Navy pilot
Since his death Friday night at home in Houston, memories of a kinder, gentler time in the nation’s political life have come flooding back. Thousands of mourners recalled his genial demeanor and lifetime of public service this week, paying their respects at the U.S. Capitol as Bush lay in state.
Presidential historian Jon Meacham, a Bush biographer, delivered a eulogy that charted the course of the former president’s life, highlighting the enduring impact of the nearly deadly plane crash Bush experienced while serving in World War II.
“Throughout the ensuing decades, President Bush would frequently ask, nearly daily, ‘Why me? Why was I spared?’” Meacham said. “And in a sense, the rest of his life was a perennial effort to prove himself worthy of salvation on that distant morning.”
“To him, his life was no longer his own,” the historian continued. “There were always more missions to undertake.”
Meacham was also sure to point out the lighter sides of Bush’s biography, recalling the time Bush accidentally shook the hand of a mannequin while on the campaign trail. That tale and others recounting Bush’s verbal flubs drew laughter from George W. Bush, who’s had similar gaffes.
But the historian also sought to capture Bush’s place in history, hailing him as “America’s last great solider-statesman, a 20th-century founding father.”
Meacham compared Bush’s “thousand points of light” to Abraham Lincoln’s call to “better angels,” describing them as “companion verses in America’s national hymn.” And while the historian noted Bush’s sometimes unyielding ambition, he said Bush’s “heart was steadfast.”
“An imperfect man, he left us a more perfect union,” Meacham said.
Other eulogies came from Brian Mulroney, Canada’s prime minister during Bush’s tenure, and former senator Alan Simpson, a longtime friend.
Mulroney lauded Bush for hammering out a trade deal with Canada and Mexico.
Speaking feet from Clinton, who finalized NAFTA, and Trump, who trashed it as the worst deal in U.S. history, Mulroney diplomatically noted that it had spurred unprecedented growth across the continent, even as it was “recently modernized and improved by new administrations.”
He posited that a century from now, historians will rank Bush atop the list of presidents, citing in particular his deft handling of the Soviet Union’s implosion. At a juncture fraught with peril for the world, he said, Bush provided “the Russian people the opportunity to build democracy in a country that had been ruled by czars and tyrants for a millennium.”
Dictators fell across Eastern Europe, and Germany stood on the precipice of reunification — another dangerous turning point for the world order.
“I believe it will be said that no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled, and more honorable than George Herbert Walker Bush,” Mulroney predicted.
The late president’s son, only the second president preceded in the office by his father, hailed him as a role model in all his roles — a father, a husband and a president.
“He was an empathetic man. He valued character over pedigree, and he was no cynic. He looked for the good in people and he usually found it,” Bush said. “To us he was close to perfect, but not perfect. His short game was lousy. He wasn’t exactly Fred Astaire on the dance floor.” And he was no fan of broccoli.
But the elder Bush had a heart big enough to serve as a father figure to an ever-growing list of younger friends and proteges, “including the unlikeliest, the man who beat him, Bill Clinton.”
“Dad taught us all what it means to be a great husband” in a 73-year marriage. “He laughed and he cried with her. He was dedicated to her totally,” Bush said.
“After mom died, dad was strong, but all he really wanted to do was hold mom’s hand again.”
At age 85, the elder Bush was still eager to go out on a speed boat, his son said. At 90, he made his last parachute jump.
“The idea is to die young, as late as possible,” Bush said, reciting a favorite saying. “One reason that dad knew how to die young is that he almost did it.” Bush was afflicted first by a serious infection and then when he was shot down in the Pacific.
The current president was not asked to speak, a break from decades of tradition that reflected Trump’s strained relationship with the Bushes.
Trump mocked the late president’s son Jeb, a former Florida governor, as “Low energy Jeb” during the 2016 primaries. The elder Bush held such disdain for Trump that he cast his final presidential ballot for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Still, he wanted the president to attend, and Trump has been gracious. He and Melania Trump paid respect at the Capitol on Tuesday and visited with the mourning family for 15 minutes at Blair House, the official guest residence across from the White House.
When Bush’s first lady, Barbara, died in April, Trump skipped the funeral, saying he didn’t want to create any disruption.
He has been largely isolated from previous presidents, not known to have sought counsel from any of them since taking office, on any topic — an unprecedented tack, given the institutional memory that exists only within the ultra-exclusive club of men who have served as commander in chief.
Lyndon Johnson was the last former president buried without a eulogy from the sitting president. His death in 1973 came two days after Richard Nixon’s second inaugural.
Simpson, the former Wyoming senator, offered a more personal reflection on Bush, calling the former president the “most decent and honorable person I ever met.”
He sent the audience into repeated fits of laughter, recalling hijinks with Bush and how the former president stayed loyal during difficult times. Praising Bush, Simpson noted that “those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
Simpson also recalled that Bush had a “very serious flaw, known by all close to him.”
The former president “liked a good joke, the richer the better, and he’d throw his head back and give it a great laugh.” But Bush could “never, ever remember a punchline,” Simpson said again to laughter, proving himself to be a master of the art.
“So the punchline for George Herbert Walker Bush is this,” Simpson said. “You would’ve wanted him on your side.”
Apart from Barack and Michelle Obama; Bill and Hillary Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea; and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, three other presidential families were represented. The guest list included two of LBJ’s children, Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb, along with Susan Ford Bales, daughter of Gerald Ford, and Nixon’s daughter, Tricia Nixon Cox.
A more intimate church service will be held in Houston on Thursday morning, followed by burial at his presidential library at Texas A&M in College Station.
There were many personal touches to the Washington ceremony, as well.
Granddaughters Lauren Bush Lauren and Ashley Walker Bush, daughters of Neil Bush, read from Isaiah. Hager recited a passage from Revelation.
Both readings pointed toward salvation.
“And the city has no need of sun or moon on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb,” Hager’s passage read. “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there.”
There was also all the pomp of a state funeral.
Uniformed members of the U.S. Marine Orchestra, the U.S. Coast Guard Band and the Armed Forces Chorus offloaded from buses as the sun rose over D.C., joining media, support staff and others in winding through the security that comes with the presence of multiple presidents.
Guests passed a thicket of TV cameras on the cathedral’s front lawn.
Attendees were greeted inside by military honor guards; two massive bouquets of white roses; guest books growing longer with each signature; a 24-page program with a golden presidential seal; and a single white candle that flickered next to where Bush’s casket would soon lay.
Buzz greeted the arrival of stars in the Bush orbit, such as former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. Legendary Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski drew a crowd about halfway back in the cathedral.
Texas connections abounded. Before the service, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the former governor, chatted with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, while Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO and a former senator, talked to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Then Perry and Hutchison, once bitter political rivals, shared a warm embrace.
The VIP list reflects Bush’s impact on history. Although he served just one term, it was an especially eventful four years.
Bush presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall and encouraged the reunification of Germany.
Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, was in the pews, along with Lech Walesa, the head of the Solidarity movement — the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc — who became the first president of a post-Soviet Poland.
Poland’s current president, Andrzej Duda, was on the guest list, too, with John Major, British prime minister during Bush’s tenure, and Prince Charles.
Among the other royalty: Jordan’s King Abdullah and Queen Rania, and the former emir of Qatar.
Kuwait, liberated under Bush in the first Persian Gulf War after Iraq invaded, was represented by its former prime minister.
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