If there can be such a thing as suspense at a funeral, it was at the funeral of former president George H.W. Bush. Many in attendance and watching at home waited to see whether his devoted son, who inherited his father’s penchant for tears, would make it through the eulogy without breaking down. He nearly did. But at the words “the best father a son or daughter could have,” former president George W. Bush sobbed, head down and body convulsed. And then continued to the speech’s conclusion. He could not have paid his father -- a well-known softy and empathetic man who nevertheless did his duty when called -- a better tribute.
The entire service was so very Bush-like. The majesty of the funeral procession, the playing of “Hail to the Chief,” the gathering of heads of state and members of both parties all served to reinforce the grandeur of the office Bush 41 once held, and to remind us that even in this democracy, where the common man is elevated, we pay homage to uncommon men of character, decency, courage and honor. Throughout his life Bush 41 understood that service, country, tradition, the norms of democracy and the Constitution itself come first.
The presence of Bush 43 and his wife, Laura, alongside the other children and spouses of Bush 41 was emblematic as well of a family bound together not only by service but also by love and camaraderie. After Bush 43 spoke, his brother Jeb reached across to clasp his hand, just as Bush 41 did in 2001 when Bush 43 in the same cathedral gave an eloquent address to the nation after Sept. 11. The Bushes physically and emotionally propped up one another. That, too, was a tribute to a man who relished the role of father, husband, grandfather and great-grandfather.
From historian Jon Meacham to former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney to Bush 43, the speakers recounted Bush 41′s political courage, his deft diplomatic touch, his role in passing landmark legislation (e.g., the Americans With Disabilities Act) and expert skill as a commander in chief; they also recounted his sense of humor, his habit of mangling the English language, his warmth as a friend and his genuine concern for others. As Meacham put it, “His life code, as he said, was tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.” George HW Bush did.
If we needed a reminder that Bush 41 will and should rank in the top tier of presidents, Mulroney recounted his accomplishments on the world stage, offering, “I believe that it will be said that in the life of this country, the United States, ... no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled and more honorable than George Herbert Walker Bush.” He continued, “When George Bush was president of the United States of America, every single head of government in the world knew they were dealing with a gentleman, a genuine leader, one was that was established, resolute and brave.” Whether intentional or not that was the only oblique reference to the current president. Thankfully, today was not about him.
And when it was Bush 43′s turn, the mood was initially joyous and jocular as he adopted a playful manner in recounting his father’s life -- and his own inherited traits. (Apparently neither 41 nor 43 liked vegetables or were good dancers.)
Bush 43 grew more serious as he spoke as an admiring, fellow president. But mostly he spoke from the vantage point of a son who learned about public service and private grace from his father. He got to the essence of Bush 41 -- his brush with illness as a teen and with death as a fighter pilot convinced him he had to prove his life was worth saving. “For Dad’s part, I think those brushes with death made him cherish the gift of life," he said. And the urgency of public service.
Bush 43 recalled, “He valued character over pedigree and looked for the good in each person — and he usually found it ... to us, his was the brightest of the thousand points of light.” And when he finished (“The best father a son or daughter could ever have and in our grief let us know that dad is hugging Robin and holding mom’s hand again”) surely many Americans and others around the world shed a tear or two with him. As a patriot, a president and public role model, George H.W. Bush has no current peer.