WASHINGTON — The nation bade farewell on Wednesday to George Herbert Walker Bush, the patriarch of one of the most consequential political dynasties of modern times and the president who presided over the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era of American dominance in the world.
As bells tolled and choirs sang and an honor guard accompanied the coffin, the nation’s 41st president was remembered as a “kinder and gentler” leader whose fortitude steered the country through storms at home and abroad and whose essential decency set a standard for others.
“When the history books are written,” his son, former president George W. Bush, said in a eulogy at Washington National Cathedral, “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.”
George W. Bush, like his father an emotional man given to tearing up over family, struggled to make it through his eulogy, his face etched with emotion. He held on until the end, when he began weeping as he called the former president “the best father a son or daughter could ever have.”
President Trump joined all four living former presidents as well as more than 3,000 foreign leaders, lawmakers, Supreme Court justices, and other mourners at the service, but given his history of rancor with the Bush family, he had no speaking role.
Without directly saying so, the speakers pushed back against Trump’s mockery of the former president’s volunteerism slogan “a thousand points of light” during campaign rallies this year.
“To us,” the younger Bush said, “his was the brightest of a thousand points of light.”
George H.W. Bush died on Friday at age 94 after years of struggling with a form of Parkinson’s disease and seven months after his wife, Barbara, died. His state funeral, the first in 12 years, served as a milestone in the life of a country that has moved beyond the type of politics he preached and, with notable exceptions, practiced. The moments of bipartisan compromise that marked his presidency feel alien as the politics of division dominate Washington and the country.
As with any funeral, Bush was venerated in death as he was not always in life. During his time in politics, he was excoriated for his violation of his “read my lips” vow not to raise taxes, his racially charged campaign tactics, and his inattention to growing economic troubles. He garnered only 37 percent of the vote in a three-way election contest in 1992, the lowest of any incumbent president in 80 years.
But with time, Bush has become one of the most admired recent presidents, ranked third out of the past 10 in polls behind only Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. During his eventful single term from 1989 to 1993, he helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful end, paved the way for the reunification of Germany, won the Persian Gulf War by expelling Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, and signed landmark environmental and disabilities legislation.
“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 prime minister Brian Mulroney of Canada, a friend who was asked to deliver a tribute.
Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Bush’s biographer, called him “America’s last great soldier-statesman, a 20th-century founding father.”
He also essentially explained Bush’s thousand-lights phrase. “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 and to heed not our worst impulses but our best instincts.”
For Trump, it was a chilly encounter with his fellow presidents, the first since his inauguration. As he shook hands with the Obamas, they forced palpably strained smiles. Trump did not reach past them to shake hands with Bill Clinton, who appeared open to it, much less with Hillary Clinton, who avoided looking at him. Sitting on the other side of the Clintons were Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.
‘To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light.’
By contrast, when George W. Bush arrived, he shook hands with all of the presidents and first ladies, making a special point of mischievously slipping candy to Michelle Obama, as he did at Senator John McCain’s funeral.
This was the service the elder Bush wanted, an Episcopal sendoff with all the majesty of the capital’s cavernous cathedral. He was involved enough in the planning that both Meacham and Mulroney, in separate visits, read him their eulogies in recent months. Mulroney told the story of a plaque at Bush’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine, that said CAVU — “ceiling and visibility unlimited,” a phrase from his flying days that applied to his life, too.
By now, that life is well known. A son of privilege and product of an elite education at Greenwich Country Day School, Phillips Academy, and Yale. One of the youngest Navy pilots in World War II, shot down over the Pacific. Texas oilman. Congressman. Ambassador to the United Nations. Republican Party chairman. CIA director. Vice president. President.
But also husband of 73 years, father of six, grandfather of 14, and great-grandfather of eight. Tennis player. Mangler of the English language. Pork rind aficionado. Broccoli hater. Prolific note writer. Practical joker. Avid speed boater. Inventor of speed golf. Geriatric sky diver. Lover of funny socks.
Called Poppy by his family, Gampy by his grandchildren, and 41 by his son, Bush was a patrician by birth and a preppy by inclination, yet in many ways the most human of presidents. He was hardly the towering figure Reagan was, but neither was he as remote. His foibles were easily parodied, but his humanity was not. Nearly everyone who gathered in Washington had a story of a gracious personal note or gesture.
Former Republican senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a longtime friend, said Bush could have just one letter as his epigraph, L for loyalty. “It coursed through his blood,” he said. “Loyalty to his country, loyalty to his family, loyalty to his friends, loyalty to the institutions of government, and always, always, always a friend to his friends.”
For George W. Bush, the eulogy was always going to be a challenge to deliver without crying. It was crafted to help him get through, laugh lines intermixed with the serious in hopes that it would make it easier. But at the end, he could not help himself and his voice thickened with grief as he looked down to regain control.
As he returned to his seat, giving two pats to his father’s coffin as he strode past, Bush sat down and wiped his eyes, then laughed, probably at himself for not quite making it all the way through. His brother Jeb smiled and reached over to squeeze his hand.
After the funeral, Bush’s body was flown to Houston, where a service will be held on Thursday at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. He will be taken by train to College Station, Texas, to be interred at his presidential library next to Barbara Bush and Robin, their daughter who died of leukemia at age 3.
“My hunch is heaven, as perfect as it must be, just got a bit kinder and gentler,” the Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson Jr., rector of St. Martin’s, said Wednesday in his homily.