The Capitol Rotunda was open to all Tuesday, and they came in a manner befitting the 41st president — not in huge numbers, but steadily; with grace and seriousness of purpose; with nothing disparaging to say, but with a recaptured sense that, even now, we’re all in this together.
Bush was not a man who engendered powerful passions from supporters or opponents. Yet there were tears on this day, and voices that cracked, and hearts that yearned for a time when politics was perhaps less a blood sport and more a means of finding solutions.
The card handed to each mourner listed Bush’s six major federal positions, his Navy service in World War II and his degree from Yale. It was a résumé of sorts, and for many visitors, that reminder of his pedigree was a powerful marker of what defined Bush, a searing statement about something that has fallen out of American politics.
Every president since Bush has run for office as an outsider, as someone who sought to clean up Washington’s mess by bringing a fresh perspective to the job. But for many of those who paid a final visit to Bush, he was, as the ultimate insider, the consummate counter to that argument.
“People need to see that experience, see everything the government does, including the military,” said Donna McGowan, 61, a Philadelphia resident who spent 37 years working for the Environmental Protection Agency. “Somehow, we lost that. Having experience is a good thing, not something to be ashamed of.”
McGowan and her friend Linda Baric, also an EPA retiree, stopped by to bid Bush farewell not because they necessarily agreed with his politics, but because they admired his moderation, in politics and in manner.
They worked for a long line of presidents and considered Bush neither the best nor the worst at caring for the environment, but that wasn’t the issue Tuesday. “It doesn’t matter if you agree with him,” McGowan said. “This is something an American should do. He was a hero. He was a good man. I watched his son — he looked so sad, I had tears running down my face.”
The crowds were steady, if nothing close to the epic queue that stretched nearly to the Washington Monument following the death of Ronald Reagan in 2004. This was a tribute closer to the size of those for Gerald Ford, the last president to lie in state, or for Sen. John McCain, who died three months ago.
Whatever their numbers, the mourners came from across the nation, some with specific memories of a president who had somehow touched their lives, some too young to remember his four years in office yet still committed to the idea that a president must be honored, no matter his politics.
They were federal workers, ID badges hanging from their necks; tourists just off the buses that ply the Mall; large families dressed up for the occasion; joggers who detoured off their usual morning course to honor their country’s former leader.
They came because he was the last president to serve in World War II, or because he made the Americans With Disabilities Act the law of the land, or because they had seen him campaign in their hometowns, or because they admired how he and his wife, Barbara, showed their love for each other. Or they came because Bush was as different from Donald Trump as they could imagine a president might be.
Some people shuddered at the idea of Trump attending Wednesday’s funeral, sitting alongside two former presidents who were depicted behind prison bars in a tweet that Trump passed along to his 56 million followers a week ago.
“What bothered me more than anything, being here and seeing all the military standing at attention for him, was thinking about that whole kinder, gentler thing about him,” McGowan said. “He was always, ‘Let’s work this out.’ He wasn’t ever there to blow up the world. He was always looking for a way to get to the middle, to get things done, just like McCain.”
David and Sandra Bertetti, who live in Andover, Mass., where Bush attended the Phillips Academy prep school — as did three of his sons, said walking into the Rotunda and seeing the crisp military ritual and the somber mood of the crowd reminded them that, as Sandra said, “Our current president is not welcome to us.”
“We’ve lost our regard for integrity, honor,” she said.
David Bertetti, a retired electrical engineer who recalled seeing Bush deliver a speech at Phillips, was reminded of his own grandfather’s arrival in the United States from Italy in the 1890s. “George Bush had a welcoming, gracious idea of our country,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any way my grandfather conceivably could have met Donald Trump’s idea of who should come into this country.”
Bush represented a way of doing politics that many visitors refused to believe has vanished forever.
“Some people may look down on it these days, when it seems like we’ve lost a sense of heritage and duty, of where we came from,” said Dick Patten, president of the American Business Defense Council, which represents family businesses and farms in Washington.
His voice broke as he recalled Bush’s devotion to finding a middle course. “President Bush was about service, and that’s what we’re missing today, service, in everything we do, in our communities, to our church. Just being nice. He embodied that, in an incredible way. And that’s why I came here,” Patten said.
Bush sometimes joked about his patrician upbringing, a Connecticut Yankee from a wealthy family that attended all the right schools and held certain expectations about service and duty.
Daniel Bean, 63, a federal worker who runs through the center of the capital each morning, steered off his usual route to pay his respects. Bush always struck him as “very refined, I would say. I was quite impressed with his demeanor. You just don’t see that anymore.”
Two Georgetown University freshmen visited the late president together despite their own political differences. Henry James, 18, of San Francisco, who leans left, and Daniel Kim, 18, of Atlanta, who’s more inclined to the right, weren’t born yet when Bush served, but they waited nearly an hour to visit a president they both see as a model of civility and bipartisanship.
“It’s something we can all respect and aspire to in our own lives,” James said. Kim agreed, explaining that he and his friend had each succeeded in pulling the other closer to the opposite side.
As night fell, leaving only a few more hours to pay respects at the Capitol before Wednesday’s funeral at Washington National Cathedral, the president’s family returned for another visit, Bush’s dog Sully stood guard for a time, and people who had worked for Bush as personal aides gathered around the casket.
Former president George W. Bush, his wife, Laura, and one of his brothers, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, returned to the Rotunda on Tuesday evening, hugging former aides and shaking hands and thanking people in the public viewing queue.
Mourners included sports figures such as Jack Nicklaus, Chris Evert and Tony La Russa; McCain’s widow, Cindy; former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell; a delegation of National Park rangers and D.C. firefighters. But the vast majority of those who came held no title and had never met the man.
Jon Cline, 57, hadn’t even voted for Bush, but he came because he had admired how the president handled the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union — with restraint and quiet diplomacy, designed to allow all parties to save face.
The passing of a president is always an occasion for nostalgia, and the rougher spots in a man’s biography tend to be smoothed over for a time. Bush was president between two larger-than-life celebrities, Reagan and Bill Clinton, polished orators who skillfully deployed emotional appeals to win Americans’ hearts. Bush, by contrast, had an awkward relationship with words, and yet for many who came to see him, that tangled way of expressing himself was exactly what made him seem authentic, connected.
Dale “Chip” McElhattan came to the Capitol with a framed photograph of his wife, son and Bush — an image taken during McElhattan’s stint as regional secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Singapore in the 1990s. The president had visited the embassy to thank Marines posted there for their service. On Bush’s way out, he stopped to pose with McElhattan and his family.
More than two decades later, McElhattan, who lives in Vienna, Va., said the picture reminds him of what leadership looks like. “It’s one thing to take the time for dignitaries and heads of state,” he said. “But when the president of the United States takes the time to relate to the security guy at the embassy? It just says so much, how you treat the regular people.”
Mark Berman and Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.