‘A GREAT, NOBLE MAN’
Respect for master of diplomacy brings together political enemies
WASHINGTON – George H.W. Bush was heralded Wednesday as “America’s last great soldier-statesman” before about 3,000 mourners who came together across party lines at Washington National Cathedral to remember the nation’s 41st president.
Ever the diplomat, the elder Bush managed in death to bring together the nation’s four living ex-presidents, as well as President Donald Trump, the Republican he and his son George W. Bush refused to support two years ago. The gathering was at times awkward as Trump and his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, ignored each other.
The most touching moment came when the younger Bush, delivering the last of four eulogies, choked up recalling “a great and noble man, and the best father a son or daughter could have.” As the late president’s three other sons and daughter looked on tearfully, the audience burst into applause for the only time during the ceremony.
As an intergenerational smattering of Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives listened intently, one speaker after another recalled qualities arguably in short supply today: Integrity. Kindness. Dignity. Humor. Empathy. Loyalty. Generosity. Truth.
“When the history books are written, they will say that George H.W. Bush was a great president of the United States, a diplomat of unmatched skill, a commander in chief of formidable accomplishment and a gentleman who executed the duties of his office with dignity and honor,” his son said. “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.”
Bush biographer Jon Meacham told mourners, “George Herbert Walker
Bush was America’s last great soldierstatesman, a 20th-century founding father. He governed with virtues that most closely resemble those of Washington and of Adams, of T.R. and of FDR, of Truman and of Eisenhower, of men who believed in causes larger than themselves.”
Meacham spoke about the courage Bush showed in World War II when, as a 20-year-old naval aviator, he parachuted from a burning plane over the Pacific Ocean. He alone lived to tell the tale; the rest of his crew perished.
“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. There were always more missions to undertake, more lives to touch and more love to give.”
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney recalled the integrity with which Bush led the nation through the fall of the Soviet Union and Berlin Wall and the Gulf War.
“Let me tell you that 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 who was distinguished, resolute and brave,” he said.
Speakers singled out Bush’s belief in volunteerism and his phrase “a thousand points of light,” which he turned into a nonprofit group, the Points of Light Foundation.
The younger Bush said his father “strongly believed that it was important to give back to the community and country in which one lived.”
“He recognized that serving others enriched the giver’s soul,” Bush said. “To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light.”
For all the emotion, virtually every speaker touched on Bush’s good humor – even if, as former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson said, he could never remember a punch line. Meacham triggered laughter by repeating former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Dana Carvey’s secret to impersonating Bush – a mixture of “Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne.”
He recounted Bush’s relationship with his wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush, who died this year. To her husband, she was simply “Bar,” or “the silver fox,” or, at times, “the enforcer.”
Bush’s granddaughters Jenna Bush Hager, Lauren Bush Lauren and Ashley Walker Bush delivered readings – Hager running her hand across his flag-draped coffin as she walked back to her seat.
The atmosphere in the cavernous cathedral was of a somber reunion, where Washington’s movers and shakers from a bygone era joined current officeholders. Trump and first lady Melania Trump were among the last to arrive, joining Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter in the front pew.
Outside, a crowd gathered across the street.
Karine Harja of Virginia cradled her sleeping daughter in one arm and held an American flag in the other.
“He was the first president I remember,” said Harja, whose husband is in the Air Force. “I was a child during the Gulf War, and I remember my parents covering my eyes when the news was on.
“It didn’t feel right to be so close and not be here.”
President Trump and Melania Trump pay their respects with Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.
George W. Bush eulogizes “the best father a son or daughter could have.”