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‘His life was a hymn of honor’: Washington reacts to George H.W. Bush’s passing

Bill Clinton, left, and George H.W. Bush became friends after their presidencies ended. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Some remembered his handwritten notes. Others shared photos of that time he shaved his head in solidarity with a 2-year-old cancer victim. And just about everyone mourning George H.W. Bush on Saturday recalled his unflinching humanity.

“He set the standard for decency,” said Thomas A. Daschle, a former Senate majority leader from the opposition Democratic Party. “If I got a call from him, the first question was just, ‘How are you doing?’ It was just his way.”

Former vice president Joe Biden recalled how Bush “insisted on coming out to see us” when the Biden family went to Houston in 2015 to “honor the doctors that cared for our deceased son, Beau,” who had just lost a wrenching battle with cancer.

“That was George H.W. Bush — decent, kind and welcoming,” Biden said in a statement Saturday. “With President Bush, it was seldom about himself. Always about others.”

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States who helped guide the world out of a four-decade U.S.-Soviet Cold War, died Nov. 30 at age 94. (Video: The Washington Post)

As Washington mourned Bush’s death Friday at age 94, former presidents, congressional leaders and figures from across the political spectrum remembered the 41st president for his character, his principle and his life of public service — noting that he continued to model comity and decency even into old age, as the nation grew increasingly divided.

From his time as a naval aviator in World War II, many said, Bush’s life was defined by a sense of duty driven not primarily by political ambition, but by a steadfast sense of compassion for others and by a determination to lead America well.

His family remembered him as a good man who loved his children, his grandchildren and above all his wife of 73 years, Barbara, who died in April. He was “a man of the highest character,” his son George W. Bush, the 43rd president, said in a statement, “and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for.”

Photos: Remembering former U.S. president George H.W. Bush

The Atlanta Falcons show a tribute to former president George Bush before the first half of their game against the Baltimore Ravens. (John Bazemore)

For many, Bush’s “kinder, gentler” imprint on American politics stood in contrast to that of the current president, Donald Trump, who has feuded with the Bush family for years and has remade the Republican Party in his own more divisive and combative image.

From Buenos Aires on Saturday, where Trump had traveled for the Group of 20 summit of industrialized nations, the president praised Bush’s career of service and said he would attend his state funeral at Washington National Cathedral.

Citing Bush’s service as a member of Congress, an ambassador to the United Nations, the director of the CIA, and the vice president and president of the United States, Trump proclaimed Wednesday a national day of mourning and found common ground with Bush in the idea that America’s strength does not come from government alone.

“America, he rightly told us, is illuminated by ‘a thousand points of light,’ ‘ethnic, religious, social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary and unique,’ ” Trump wrote.

Bush shared a closer bond with others who served as he had in the Oval Office. In a statement, former president Barack Obama said America “has lost a patriot and humble servant,” calling Bush’s life “a testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling.” Obama wrote of how Bush, “even after commanding the world’s mightiest military, once said ‘I got more of a kick out of being one of the founders of the YMCA in Midland, Tex., back in 1952, than almost anything I’ve done.’”

Former president Bill Clinton, who ousted Bush in 1992, making him a one-term president, later became a close friend and confidant. On Saturday, Clinton said in a statement that he considered Bush’s friendship “one of my life’s greatest gifts . . . From the moment I met him, as a young governor invited to his home in Kennebunkport, I was struck by the kindness he showed to Chelsea, by his innate and genuine decency, and by his devotion to Barbara, his children, and their growing brood.”

In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post the same day, Clinton recalled the letter he found in the Oval Office on Jan. 20, 1993.

“You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well,” Bush had written to the man who defeated him. “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

“No words of mine or others can better reveal the heart of who he was,” Clinton wrote.

The accolades rolled in from across Capitol Hill, where Bush once served as a congressman from Texas. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a statement that Bush had “those little touches of grace and affection and humor that make life sing.”

“His life was a hymn of honor,” Ryan said.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) recalled Bush’s lasting imprint on her home state of Maine, where the Bush family spent summers at their compound in Kennebunkport. Collins said that residents of Kennebunkport had given Bush a U.S. Navy anchor, a symbol of the family home Bush often called his “anchor to windward.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised Bush’s decades of service, from the skies above the South Pacific to the Oval Office. House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praised Bush’s sense of duty and sacrifice.

“Always a gentleman,” Pelosi said in a statement, “his life and legacy will remain an enduring gift to the nation.”

Bush’s public service career extended beyond elected office. He served as director of the CIA, was a U.S. envoy to Beijing and served as a U.N. delegate.

On Saturday, CIA Director Gina Haspel called Bush “a committed citizen who . . . exemplified the virtues of patriotism, duty, and compassion.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Bush’s experience in war informed his instincts as commander in chief and that his service “demonstrated how we as a people can draw on our humility, diversity and devotion to our country to meet every challenge with fortitude and confidence.”

On Monday evening, Bush’s casket will arrive in Washington and he will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda until Wednesday morning. As the nation’s capital prepares to memorialize Bush’s life, it will undoubtedly weigh what remains of Bush’s political era.

“He set the standard, and we’re falling short of that standard today,” Daschle said. “We could do no better than to aspire to his decency, his ethics, his appreciation of the importance of civility.”

Philip Rucker, Dan Lamothe, Dan Balz and Martin Weil contributed to this report.