HEAVEN ‘JUST GOT A BIT KINDER’
Eulogies recall Bush’s civility, service and love of humor
WASHINGTON – George H.W. Bush was remembered for his basic civility Wednesday at a state funeral in the National Cathedral that brought leaders in a city of acrid political divisions together to celebrate a president who presided over the end of the Cold War while urging forward a kinder and gentler United States on the world stage and at home.
A sometimes tearful former President George W. Bush, the new patriarch of one of the nation’s political dynasties, delivered a wrenching tribute under the tall archways of the massive church, recalling his father’s humor, his faith and enduring life lessons about love, loyalty and giving back to the community.
“He showed me what it means to be a president who serves with integrity, leads with courage and acts with love in his heart for the citizens of our country,” said the 43rd president, who followed his father into the Oval Office by nearly a decade.
“Your decency, sincerity, and kind soul will stay with us forever,” said Bush, his voice cracking. “So, through our tears let us know the blessings of knowing and loving you, a great and noble man, the best father a son or daughter could have.”
To applause, Bush returned
to his seat in the front row, tapping his father’s casket and accepting a hug from his wife, Laura.
George W. Bush’s was the most emotional tribute in a service marked by remembrances of his father’s accomplishments as a World War II Navy pilot, ambassador, vice president, and finally as a president who saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, ushered in the reunification of Germany, and kicked the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait.
Bush largely stuck to the personal.
“To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light,” he said, recalling one of his father’s familiar refrains.
Among the most poignant eulogies were those that recounted gestures of kindness and expressions of humility before the great spectacle of history.
“An imperfect man, he left us a more perfect union,” said presidential biographer Jon Meacham.
Meacham described Bush as a man who felt the burden of having been spared death after his World War II bomber was shot down in the Pacific, killing two crew members.
“In a sense, the rest of his life was a perennial effort to prove himself worthy of his salvation on that distant morning,” Meacham said. “To him, his life was no longer his own.”
He called Bush, the last president of the World War II generation, America’s “last great soldier-statesman,” resembling the greatest leaders of the nation.
“Abraham Lincoln’s better angels of our nation 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 and to heed not our worst impulses but our best instincts.”
Meacham also poked gentle fun at Bush’s public persona, defined in part by comedians and the occasional mispoken word.
“On the primary campaign trail in New Hampshire once, he grabbed the hand of a department store mannequin, asking for votes. When he realized his mistake, he said, “Never know. Gotta ask.” You can hear the voice, can't you? As Dana Carvey said, the key to a Bush 41 impersonation is Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne.”
Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, a longtime friend and political ally, spoke to one of the low-points in Bush’s political career, when he broke his “no new taxes” pledge in an effort to combat rising federal deficits. It was a decision that saw his party turn on him, and likely cost him a second term.
“He often said that 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 recalled. “And 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.”
Simpson also recalled Bush as a lover of jokes, “the richer the better” — but also as one who could never remember a punch line.
“So, the punch line for George Herbert Walker Bush is this: You would have wanted him on your side,” Simpson said. “He never lost his sense of humor. Humor is a universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life.”
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who led his country from 1984 to 1993, added another Bush eulogy. Mulroney said that when world leaders worked with Bush, they “knew they were dealing with a gentleman, a genuine leader, one that was distinguished, resolute and brave.”
The presence of President Donald Trump at the service, along with the three other surviving presidents and their spouses, added to a sense of civility in a ceremony providing a nostalgic counterpoint to Washington’s divisions. His invitation by the Bushes appeared to signal a truce between two leading families representing different brands of the Republican Party and political discourse.
The ceremony was the first presidential funeral since President Gerald Ford died in 2006. But it resembled in some ways the recent service for the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, another gathering of the Washington establishment to which Trump pointedly was not invited.
Trump did not speak at the Bush send-off, a rarity for an official state funeral. Sitting in a front row pew with former Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — all Democrats — Trump often held his arms folded, though he raised his hand to his heart when Bush’s casket was carried into and out of the cathedral.
Though the president and all the former presidents were accompanied by their wives, Trump did not exchange greetings with former First Lady Hillary Clinton, whom he defeated in the 2016 election.
The public also got a chance to pay its respects Wednesday as thousands lined the route of his hearse from the U.S. Capitol, where he had lain in state, to the Washington Cathedral, a distance of about 5 miles. Along the way, the procession made one last pass by the White House, before his body would be flown back to Texas to be buried by his wife, Barbara, who died last April.
In Houston, Bush’s body was scheduled to lie in repose at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where Houstonians could pay their respects throughout the night before his casket was to be moved to College Station Thursday, where the family would hold a private service on the grounds of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M.
Some of the last words of the national service were provided by the Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson, Jr., rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, where the Bushes worshiped for the past 50 years
“Some have said in the last few days that this is the end of an era,” Levenson said. “But it does not have to be. Perhaps it’s an invitation to fill the hole that has been left behind.”
To those who want to honor Bush, Levenson said, follow his example of love: “There’s no greater mission on planet earth. My hunch is heaven, as perfect as it must be, just got a bit kinder and gentler.”
Family, friends and dignitaries, including President Donald Trump and former Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, hold their hands over their hearts as the casket for former President George H.W. Bush passes.
Former President George W. Bush and the rest of the Bush family follow George H.W. Bush’s flag-draped casket after Wednesday’s state funeral at the Washington National Cathedral.