George H.W. Bush, who shaped history as 41st president and patriarch of a family that occupied the White House for a dozen years, is going to his final rest, in Texas.
The country said goodbye to him Wednesday in a national funeral service that offered high praise for the last of the presidents to have fought in World War II – and a hefty dose of humour about a man once described as a cross between Mister Rogers and John Wayne.
After three days of remembrance in Washington, a plane brought Bush’s casket for his funeral’s closing ceremonies in Houston and burial Thursday at his family plot on the presidential library grounds at Texas A&M University in College Station. His final resting place is alongside Barbara Bush, his wife of 73 years, and Robin Bush, the daughter they lost to leukemia at age 3.
In the service at Washington National Cathedral, three former presidents and President Donald Trump looked on as George W. Bush eulogized his father as “the brightest of a thousand points of light.”
The cathedral service was a tribute to a president, a patriarch and a faded political era that prized military service and public responsibility. It was laced with indirect comparisons to Trump but was not consumed by them, as speakers focused on Bush’s public life and character – with plenty of cracks about his goofy side, too.
“He was a man of such great humility,” said Alan Simpson, former Republican senator from Wyoming. Those who travel “the high road of humility in Washington, D.C.,” he added pointedly, “are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
Trump sat with his wife, a trio of ex-presidents and their wives, several of them sharp critics of his presidency and one of them, Hillary Clinton, his 2016 Democratic foe. Apart from courteous nods and some handshakes, there was little interaction between Trump and the others.
George W. Bush broke down briefly at the end of his eulogy while invoking the daughter his parents lost in 1953 his mother, who died in April. He took comfort in knowing “Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom’s hand again.”
It was a family that occupied the White House for a dozen years – the 41st president defeated after one term, the 43rd serving two. Jeb Bush stepped up to try to extend that run but fell short when Trump won the 2016 Republican primaries.
The elder Bush was “the last great-soldier statesman,” historian Jon Meacham said in his eulogy, “our shield” in dangerous times.
But he also said that Bush, campaigning in a crowd in a department store, once shook hands with a mannequin. Rather than flushing in embarrassment, he simply cracked, “Never know. Gotta ask.”
Meacham recounted how comedian Dana Carvey once said the key to doing an impersonation of Bush was “Mister Rogers trying to be John Wayne.”
None of those words would be a surprise to Bush. Meacham read his eulogy to him, said Bush spokesman Jim McGrath, and Bush responded to it with the crack: “That’s a lot about me, Jon.”
The congregation at the cathedral, filled with foreign leaders and diplomats, Americans of high office and others touched by Bush’s life, rose for the arrival of the casket, accompanied by clergy of faiths from around the world. In their row together, Trump and former Presidents Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton stood with their spouses and all placed their hands over their hearts.
Simpson regaled the congregation with stories from his years as Bush’s friend in Washington. More seriously, he recalled that when he went through a rough patch in the political game, Bush conspicuously stood by him against the advice of aides. “You would have wanted him on your side,” he said.
Simpson said Bush “loved a good joke – the richer the better. And he threw his head back and gave that great laugh, but he never, ever could remember a punchline. And I mean never.”
George W. Bush turned the humour back on the acerbic ex-senator, saying of the late president: “He placed great value on a good joke, so he chose Simpson to speak.”
Meacham praised Bush’s call to volunteerism – his “1,000 points of light” – placing it alongside Abraham Lincoln’s call to honour “the better angels of our nature” in the American rhetorical canon. Meacham called those lines “companion verses in America’s national hymn.”
Trump had mocked “1,000 points of light” last summer at a rally, saying “What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out? And it was put out by a Republican, wasn’t it?”
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney praised Bush as a strong world leader who helped oversee the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and helped bring about the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, signed into law by his successor, Clinton.
With Trump, a bitter NAFTA critic, seated in the front row, Mulroney hailed the “largest and richest free trade area in the history of the world.” The three countries have agreed on a revised trade agreement pushed by Trump.
On Wednesday morning, a military band played “Hail to the Chief” as Bush’s casket was carried down the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where he had lain in state. Family members looked on as servicemen fired off a cannon salute.
His hearse was then driven in a motorcade to the cathedral ceremony, slowing in front of the White House. Bush’s route was lined with people much of the way, bundled in winter hats and taking photos.
Waiting for his arrival inside, Trump shook hands with Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama, who greeted him by saying “Good morning.” Trump did not shake hands with Bill and Hillary Clinton, who looked straight ahead.
Bill Clinton and Mrs. Obama smiled and chatted as music played. Carter was seated silently next to Hillary Clinton in the cavernous cathedral. Obama cracked up laughing at someone’s quip. Vice-President Mike Pence shook Carter’s hand.
Trump tweeted Wednesday that the day marked “a celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life.” Trump and his wife took their seats after the others, briefly greeting the Obamas seated next to them.
Bush’s death makes Carter, also 94 but more than 100 days younger, the oldest living ex-president.
Following the cathedral service, the hearse and a long motorcade drove to the National Mall to pass by the World War II Memorial, a nod to the late president’s service as a World War II Navy pilot, then transferred his remains at Joint Base Andrews for the flight home with members of his family.
Trump ordered the federal government closed Wednesday for a national day of mourning. Flags on public buildings are flying at half-staff for 30 days.
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