The body of former president George H.W. Bush arrived at the U.S. Capitol on Monday afternoon to begin several days of Washington tributes with all the solemn ceremony befitting a nation’s late leader.
The president’s cortege, in a flight of gleaming black limousines, arrived on a fading autumn day at the traditional site of public leave-taking after a journey from Houston, where Bush died Friday at the age of 94.
As the sky grew pink and the U.S. Army Band played hymns, an eight-man military team of bearers carried the casket up the long flight of stairs at the eastern front of the Capitol.
The crash of an artillery salute echoed over the grounds.
Inside, the casket was placed on the same pine board catafalque, covered in black fabric, that held the coffin of Abraham Lincoln after he was assassinated in 1865.
One hundred eighty feet above, in the “eye” of the Rotunda, was the 1851 fresco depicting the exaltation of the nation’s first president, George Washington.
Scores of dignitaries and legislators were gathered and were unanimous in their praise. Among them was Vice President Pence.
“President Bush was a great leader who made a great difference in the life of this nation,” he said. “But he was also just a good man, who was devoted to his wife, his family, and his friends.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Bush a hero and “a steady hand.”
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrived about 8:30 p.m., long after the ceremony. They bowed their heads in silent meditation before the president saluted and the two left.
Amid the speeches and the pomp, George W. Bush, a former president and one of George H.W. Bush’s sons, looked haggard with grief.
The late president’s casket and his family had arrived at Joint Base Andrews on the jet that usually carries Trump. It landed at the base in suburban Maryland about 3:20 p.m.
The plane arrived under a blue sky and rolled down an empty runway. When it came to a stop, a blue truck bearing the presidential seal pulled up to remove the casket from the aircraft.
As an Air Force band played a hymn, and a blue Air Force flag flew at half-staff, the president’s casket was placed in a black hearse, which left for the Capitol at 4 p.m.
Outside the base, bystanders with cellphones and cameras took their positions as police asked them to move back off the sidewalk, to keep the Secret Service from getting nervous.
At the Admiral Place apartment complex across the street, neighbors went to their balconies as the breeze blew briskly and the sun started sinking.
Nearby, Bryan Ingram waited.
Ingram, 35, has been here for the funerals of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, as well as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
“It’s a final tribute,” he said. “It’s a way to pay my respects to a fallen statesman. . . . He brought dignity to the office of president. That’s not something we have today.”
Nearby, Deborah Gwaltney, a retiree and Upper Marlboro resident, sat in her car waiting for the motorcade. “They don’t make men like that anymore,” she said. “Men of his caliber.”
Elsewhere outside the base, a woman held a sign echoing George H.W. Bush’s last words to George W. Bush:
“We love you too, Mr. President.”
As the motorcade passed, she said quietly, “There he is.”
Sherdette Daniels, 55, of Fort Washington saluted the motorcade as it left the base.
“Yes! Yes!” she said as former first lady Laura Bush and her daughter Jenna Bush Hager waved from one of the SUVs.
“This is awesome! That’s it! Woo! Amen, amen,” Daniels said. She then turned to a woman standing beside her who had her hand on her chest. The strangers hugged.
“I thought I was going to cry,” the older woman said.
As the motorcade swept up Constitution Avenue, Sherry Smith, 45, a probation officer who lives in Dallas, stood on the sidewalk outside the Capitol and placed her hand across her heart.
“I don’t know why I did it,” Smith said seconds after the motorcade passed. “It was automatic. . . . It’s a solemn feeling. . . . He was a war hero. He spent his whole life protecting our country.”
On the west side of the Capitol, as the artillery salute boomed near the memorial to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, 9-year-old Sebastian Cabrera Zuniga became alarmed.
“That’s loud!” he shouted, his hands covering his ears.
“Daddy are they destroying anything?”
His father, Nick Pasqualicchio, 58, from New Jersey, told his son, “No, they just make a lot of noise.”
Earlier in Houston, another band had played the haunting “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” known as the Navy hymn, and smoke from an artillery salute blew across the airport tarmac as the late president began his final journey to Washington.
As wind blew the ceremonial flags and the bearers struggled to hold them upright, the body of the former president arrived at Houston’s Ellington Field, where it was placed aboard the presidential jet for the trip to Joint Base Andrews.
The band played ruffles and flourishes and “Hail to the Chief,” and George W. and Laura Bush led the family aboard the blue and white jumbo jet.
The public viewing in the Rotunda will continue Tuesday and will end at 7 a.m. Wednesday.
An hour before the 7:30 p.m. start of the public viewing Monday, a few hundred people already had lined up outside the Capitol.
“It’s historical,” said Terry Davidson, who works for the Small Business Administration. “We are from Texas. President Bush was from Texas. We thought it was a great opportunity to pay respects to a man we admired because of his patriotism, his courage and leadership.”
Across the street, Alex Roberts, 22, a flight attendant, and his friend, Rasheed Evelyn, 22, a student at George Washington University, looked up at the Capitol dome.
“It’s really amazing to show this honor to a former American president,” Roberts said. “It really is an end of an era for someone who held the office with dignity. My politics differ from him, but I respect his service to the country. He was an American icon.”
The last president to lie in state in the Rotunda before George H.W. Bush was Ford, from Dec. 30, 2006, to Jan. 2, 2007. The last public figure to lie in state there was the late senator John McCain on Aug. 31, according to the Senate Historical Office.
The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was rescheduled to 5 p.m. Thursday.
A funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral, as the Bush family requested.
After a departure ceremony at 10 a.m. at the Capitol, the former president’s body will be taken to the cathedral via motorcade that will move along streets including Constitution Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue.
The state funeral — based on the burial rite in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer — will be led by the Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the cathedral said.
Also participating will be the Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Episcopal Bishop of Washington; the Rev. Randy Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral; and the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.
Bush is to be eulogized by his son George W. Bush, as well as former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, former senator Alan Simpson and historian Jon Meacham, according to CNN.
The cathedral also hosted the state funerals of Ford in 2007, Reagan in 2004 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1969.
The cathedral also hosted the official burial service for Woodrow Wilson in 1924.
Staff writers Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane, Jenna Portnoy, Faiz Siddiqui and Clarence Williams in Washington and Brittney Martin in Houston contributed to this report.