Is this really the last time divided Washington will unite?
In death, George HW Bush accomplished something perhaps no one alive could achieve.
He brought together the Washington that was with the Washington that is; the greatest generation with the baby boomers and the millennials; the old Republican Party with the new Republican Party; and yes, even liberals with conservatives.
As mourners filled the seats of the cavernous National Cathedral for his funeral yesterday, it was hard to escape the feeling that the 41st president, a man known in life for his grace and decency, had used those gifts from the hereafter to unite a crowd that will never be assembled again.
It was in some ways an incongruous picture: A leader who perfected the art of the handwritten thank-you note was being farewelled in a time of the hi-tech political insult.
One of Bush’s eulogists, biographer Jon Meacham, seemed to place Bush as the representative of a time gone by when he referred to him as “America’s last great soldier-statesman”.
Yet the question that seemed to hang over the crowd was whether Bush really must be seen as the last of his kind — or whether he might leave behind a little of that unity and civility as he was flown off for burial in Texas.
There are ample grounds for scepticism. Even as this Bush moment was marked, it wasn’t possible to put aside entirely the passions and divisions of the moment.
When Donald Trump arrived, he strode past and then sat down in the same pew as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who opposed him in a presidential campaign in which Trump led supporters in chanting, “Lock her up!”. Clinton sat stony-faced, staring straight ahead.
Still, even that stern visage broke when tributes to Bush began flowing during a two-hour service that united mourners across generational and ideological lines.
Not far from the front sat Bush’s one-time political foe and late-life friend, former senator and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, a fellow World War II veteran.
On Wednesday, Dole had gathered all the strength his 95year-old body would allow to rise from his wheelchair and offer a salute to the Bush coffin that electrified and unified a fractious country. Elsewhere, the former leader of Poland, Lech Walesa, who joined Bush in helping bring an end to the Soviet Union, sat not far from the likely future king of England, Prince Charles. Off to one side, Democratic and Republican senators mingled easily.
Throughout the ceremony — the first state funeral in 12 years — the subtext appeared to be a message to today’s practitioners of the political arts that it is possible to be, as Bush once said famously, “kinder and gentler”, and to unite as well as divide.
Meacham said Mr Bush “stood in the breach in Washington against unthinking partisanship.”
The late president’s son, George W. Bush, the nation’s 43rd president, said of his father: “He looked for the good in each person. And he usually found it.”
And former senator Alan Simpson, a close friend, said: “He never hated anyone …. The most decent and honourable man I ever met was my friend, George Bush.”
These are the kinds of things people normally say at funerals, of course, and they tend to brush past the blemishes on any such picture. As some eulogists also noted, Bush succeeded in some measure by being a tough political fighter when he needed to be.
His campaigns, particularly his successful 1988 presidential campaign, sometimes reflected the divisive aspects of political life as well as the brighter sides. Bush later appeared to regret those brief forays onto the dark side, and he made it to the end of his life with almost no real enemies.
Yet for all the talk of unity there were no Democratic speakers at yesterday’s service, and no handshakes between Trump and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Bush brought to the Oval Office perhaps the most glittering resume of modern times: former vice-president, UN ambassador, envoy to China, member of congress, party chairman, director of central intelligence.
Yet it is striking that his eulogies yesterday dwelt more on his personal style and character than those achievements.
“Some have said in recent days this is the end of an era,” said the Reverend Russell Levenson Jr, the late president’s Houston pastor.
“But it does not have to be.”