President George H.W. Bush was remembered Wednesday as “America’s last great soldier-statesman,” as family members and dignitaries from around the world bid farewell to the nation’s 41st commander in chief.
George W. Bush paid tribute to his father in a moving address that began with lighthearted quips but ended with the 43rd president choking up as he said goodbye to his father. Bush will be buried at his presidential library in College Station, Texas, alongside his wife, Barbara, and daughter Robin, who died at age 3.
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“Through our tears, let us know the blessing of knowing and loving you, a great and noble man, the best father a son or daughter could have,” George W. Bush said, as he momentarily broke down, bowing his head.
Wednesday’s ceremony at Washington National Cathedral was two hours of levity, solemnity, celebration and contrast — between the man inside the U.S. flag-draped casket and the new leader of the Republican Party.
George W. Bush described his father as an adventurous man who flirted with death throughout his life, zooming across the Atlantic in his boat at age 85 and parachuting from a plane at age 90. Bush also had a near-fatal staph infection as a teenager and was rescued from a life raft in the Pacific after his plane was shot down during World War II.
But at times, George W. Bush’s remembrances of his father served as a reminder of his family’s political rival: President Donald Trump.
George W. Bush said his father valued character (Trump prefers to elevate people who look the part), taught his children the importance of service (Trump received four medical deferments for bone spurs in his heel and never served in office until becoming president), and the value of faith and family (Trump has been accused of multiple extramarital affairs).
“To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light,” George W. Bush said. “In victory, he shared credit. When he lost, he shouldered the blame. He accepted that failure is a part of living a full life but taught us never to be defined by failure. He showed us how setbacks can strengthen.”
And when the elder Bush golfed, his son recalled, he did so “at a legendary pace.” “He played fast so he could move on to the next event, to enjoy the rest of the day, to expend his enormous energy, to live it all.”
In his eulogy, presidential historian Jon Meacham cast Bush as a man who questioned his life’s purpose after the Navy fighter pilot was spared death but who ultimately became president and governed with the same virtues as George Washington, John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“An imperfect man, he left us a more perfect union,” Meacham said.
Bush, 94, died Friday. Tributes quickly poured in, and his remains were flown to Washington on “Special Air Mission 41” and carried into the Capitol Rotunda, where he had lain in state since Monday.
Wednesday’s ceremony was officially the first state funeral since former President Gerald Ford died in 2006. But it bore similarities to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s funeral in September, with one glaring difference: This time, Trump was welcome.
Despite his tense relationship with the Bush family — Trump branded former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as “low energy” during the 2016 GOP presidential primary, blamed George W. Bush for Sept. 11 and mocked George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” volunteerism program — Trump was invited to attend the service.
“Looking forward to being with the Bush family,” Trump tweeted ahead of the service. “This is not a funeral, this is a day of celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life. He will be missed!”
The speakers didn’t rebuke Trump as they memorialized Bush, but their remarks commemorating the former president presented stark contrasts between the past president and the current commander in chief.
“I believe it will be said that no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled and more honorable than George Herbert Walker Bush,” said former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who praised Bush’s foreign policy, including his leadership in the United Nations and the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“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, a genuine leader, one who was distinguished, resolute and brief,” Mulroney added.
In addition to serving as president, vice president, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and CIA director, Bush was a former Navy pilot who rarely talked about his tour during World War II. And outside of his service, speakers said, he was an honorable man.
“His tongue may have run amok at moments, but his heart was steadfast,” Meacham said. “His life code, as he said, was ‘tell the truth, don’t blame people, be strong, do your best, try hard, forgive, stay the course.’ And that was and is the most American of creeds.”
Bush’s death has brought some civility to an often-divided Washington. Congressional leaders are finalizing a short-term deal to avoid a government shutdown Friday and delay a bitter fight over billions of dollars in funding for Trump’s border wall out of respect for Bush.
Trump also declared Wednesday a national day of mourning, closing most of the federal government. The House, meanwhile, has canceled votes this week, and the Senate wasn’t to vote until Wednesday afternoon.
Trump’s attendance put him in the same room as former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter at the service, which also drew congressional leaders, other members of Congress, foreign officials and other dignitaries.
Trump arrived with first lady Melania Trump, and they took their seats in the same pew as the Obamas, the Clintons and the Carters, in what appeared to be a tense moment.
With the cast of presidents and first ladies before him, Bush thanked his father for teaching him how to be a president.
“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,” he said. “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 duty of his office with dignity and honor.”
Later Wednesday, Bush’s casket was to be transported to Houston. Ceremonies were scheduled at Ellington Field and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where Bush was to lie in repose Wednesday night.
On Thursday, there will be a funeral service at St. Martin’s, and Bush’s body will be transported to College Station, Texas, for interment at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. He will be buried at the family plot alongside his wife, Barbara Bush, who died in April, and daughter Robin.
“We’re gonna miss you. Your decency, sincerity and kind soul will stay with us forever,” Bush said, going on to describe him as the “best father.”
He paused briefly to gather himself: “And in our grief, let us smile knowing that Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom’s hand again.”