Former president George H.W. Bush was remembered Wednesday as a steadfast leader in tumultuous times and a decent and humble husband, father and friend during a soaring and deeply personal state funeral at Washington National Cathedral.
“When George Bush was president of the United States of America, every single head of government in the world knew that they were dealing with a gentleman,” said former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, addressing President Trump, the four other living ex-presidents and 3,000 guests on a rare day of magisterial ceremony in the nation’s capital.
The scene at George H.W. Bush’s state funeral at Washington National Cathedral
George W. Bush’s tribute was the emotional high point, and the cathedral filled with sustained applause as he passed his father’s flag-wrapped casket, returned to his seat and wiped away tears.
The themes he highlighted — of service over self, cooperation over partisanship, family and country over political tribe — also suffused the tributes from the late president’s friends, who addressed a crowd of U.S. and world leaders all struggling through an era of crippling political partisanship.
Former senator Alan Simpson recalled Bush’s 1990 decision to raise taxes after his famous presidential campaign slogan, “Read my lips: No new taxes,” a move that contributed to his bitter defeat in 1992 and ushered in the rise of a more revolutionary Republican Party.
“He often said, ‘When the really tough choices come, it’s the country, not me. It’s not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s for our country that I fought for,’ ” Simpson said. “He was a man of such great humility. Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
The crowd loved that one.
“You would have wanted him on your side,” Simpson said. “He never hated anyone. He knew what his mother and my mother always knew: Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in. The most decent and honorable man I ever met was my friend George Bush.”
Bush’s death last week at age 94 coincides with the end of the fiscally conservative and socially moderate Republican Party that his family had come to embody. The “kinder, gentler” party Bush promised has now been subsumed by Trump’s party of nationalist anger and anti-establishment disruption.
But on Wednesday, in Washington’s grand stone cathedral, the day belonged to tradition and bipartisanship — to the establishment. The Bushes, like the Kennedys on the left, are U.S. political aristocracy, families whose names connote tradition, public service and a recognized set of values — which are now largely under fire.
The day was American high ceremony in all its finery, with flags snapping in the cold wind, crisp military uniforms and flowing religious garments, cannon fire and soaring choirs, a 21-gun salute, tolling church bells and motorcades.
The cathedral’s rows of wooden seats suddenly became the setting for portraits capturing a rare moment in U.S. history.
In the front row: Trump and former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, along with their wives. In the second row, Vice President Pence and his predecessors Dan Quayle, Richard B. Cheney and Joe Biden, accompanied by their wives, and Al Gore.
Trump and the Bush family had agreed to an informal truce in the feud that has dominated their relations, at least for this week, to allow the family and the nation to mourn the passing of the 41st president without toxic partisanship.
But the tension was still blindingly obvious. When Trump and first lady Melania Trump entered the church, they exchanged brief handshakes with the Obamas, who were seated next to them, as dictated by protocol. Melania Trump shook hands with Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton gave her a smile. But the president made no effort to greet the Clintons. Bill Clinton looked in Trump’s direction briefly, as if willing to shake hands. But Hillary Clinton stared straight ahead and never glanced at the man who defeated her for the White House.
Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, the court’s most conservative member, appointed by George H.W. Bush, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court’s liberal lion, sat side by side. Ivanka Trump sat next to Chelsea Clinton. Dozens of congressional leaders from both parties sat close by members of the Trump administration.
Establishment figures facing their own populist revolts came from around the world to salute Bush. Prince Charles of Britain paid his respects, while his government at home was debating its nasty Brexit divorce from Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was there, too, representing a solidly centrist German establishment that has also been buffeted by furious nationalism.
Other guests seemed lifted from the pages of Bush’s résumé: Representatives from Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, all deeply affected by the 1991 Gulf War, were there. So was King Abdullah II of Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally whose father, King Hussein, while a longtime CIA asset, was publicly skeptical of Bush’s coalition efforts against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Former Polish president Lech Walesa joined the mourners, as both a Bush contemporary in power and a symbol of the post-Soviet order that Bush helped nurture during his presidency from 1989 to 1993.
Wednesday’s readings began with the younger generation of the Bush family as three granddaughters, Lauren Bush Lauren, Ashley Walker Bush and Jenna Bush Hager, delivered Bible readings from the ornate stone pulpit.
Historian and Bush biographer Jon Meacham, who also gave a eulogy at Barbara Bush’s funeral in April, lightened the mood when he recalled the former president’s difficulties with the English language, including his observation before the 1988 election that “it’s no exaggeration to say that the undecideds could go one way or the other.”
He also noted that an eager candidate Bush once accidentally shook the hand of a department store mannequin in New Hampshire. When Bush realized his mistake, Meacham said, he exclaimed: “Never know. Gotta ask.”
Bush had the perfect establishment résumé: son of a U.S. senator, Phillips Academy, U.S. Navy pilot, Yale University, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China, U.S. congressman, CIA director, vice president and president of the United States.
He was as elite as an ascot, but his struggles with spoken English boosted the career of “Saturday Night Live” comic and Bush impersonator Dana Carvey — who later became a friend of Bush. Meacham said Carvey joked that Bush’s speaking voice was “Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne.”
But Meacham said that while Bush’s tongue might have “run amok,” “his heart was steadfast.”
“Abraham Lincoln’s ‘better angels of our nature’ and George H.W. Bush’s ‘thousand points of light’ are companion verses in America’s national hymn,” Meacham said. “For Lincoln and Bush both called on us to choose the right over the convenient, to hope rather than to fear, to heed not our worst impulses but our best instincts.”
Bush flew 58 combat missions in World War II and sky-dived to celebrate his 75th, 80th, 85th and 90th birthdays. Yet he lived longer than any other president: 94 years and just over five months. Jimmy Carter is second at 94 years and two months.
Addressing the crowd, Meacham described the day when Bush, the last U.S. president to serve in World War II, was piloting a bomber that was shot down over the Pacific in 1944, killing his two crewmen.
“Why him? Why was he spared?” Meacham said. “The workings of providence are mysterious, but this much is clear: The George Herbert Walker Bush who survived that fiery fall into the waters of the Pacific three quarters of a century ago made our lives, and the lives of nations, freer, better, warmer and nobler.
“That was his mission. That was his heartbeat,” Meacham said. “And if we listen closely enough, we can hear that heartbeat even now, for it’s the heartbeat of a lion — a lion who not only led us, but who loved us.
“That’s why him. That’s why he was spared.”
John Wagner, Felicia Sonmez and Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.
The story has been corrected to fix the years of Bush’s presidency, note that during World War II he flew a bomber rather than a fighter and delete an incorrect reference to the funeral bier.