An image of George H.W. Bush as a family man, caring friend, and devoted churchgoer emerged Thursday as the former president was remembered in Houston at a church his family has attended for half a century.
Eulogists at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church honored the nation’s 41st president as a war hero, politician, and statesman, but they focused at least as much attention on his life as a husband, father, grandfather, and Christian.
Here are some of the most revealing anecdotes from Bush’s Texas service, which followed a state funeral Wednesday at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Humility, not humiliation
James A. Baker III, who served as Bush’s White House chief of staff and secretary of state, remembered him as “a man of great faith and great integrity, a truly beautiful human being,” as well as “one of our nation’s finest presidents, and beyond any doubt our nation’s very best one-term president.”
Baker, like other speakers at both Bush funerals, eschewed direct references to the current fractious political climate and the divisive presidency of Donald Trump.
But Baker offered what could be interpreted as a veiled rebuke of the bombastic personality occupying the Oval Office that Bush left more than 25 years ago, as he praised Bush’s humility, deliberation, and moderation.
“George Bush was temperate in thought, in word, and in deed. He considered his choices, and then he chose wisely,” Baker said.
“The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, less than one year into his presidency,” Baker continued. “It was a remarkable triumph for American foreign policy. As joyous East and West Germans danced on the remains of that hated wall, George Bush could have joined them, metaphorically, and claimed victory for the West, for America — and frankly, for himself.
“But he did not. He knew better. He understood that humility toward, and not humiliation of, a fallen adversary was the very best path to peace and reconciliation.”
‘If you’re so smart, why am I president and you’re not?’
Baker’s eulogy recounted numerous foreign policy achievements of the first Bush administration, but his remarks described someone who was not just a statesman, but also Baker’s close friend of more than 60 years and, in Baker’s words, a “role model.”
He recounted Bush’s “boundless kindness and consideration of others, his determination always to do the right thing, and always to do that to the very best of his ability.” He called George and Barbara Bush’s work with their Points of Light foundation and other charities “a model for all former first families, past, present, and future.”
“His deeds for his fellow man always spoke for him,” he said. “ ‘Give someone else a hand,’ he would say. And he did. ‘When a friend is hurting, show that you care,’ he would say. And he did. ‘Be kind to people,’ he would say. And he was.”
Baker said he was proud that Bush saw himself as an older brother to Baker and valued his candid advice — “even when I knew he didn’t want to hear it.” But Bush also had a “very effective way” to end any discussion, Baker said.
“He would look at me and he’d say, ‘Baker, if you’re so smart, why am I president and you’re not?’ ” Baker recalled, as mourners erupted in laughter.
“He was a leader, and he knew it.”
Life with ‘Gampy’
Grandson George P. Bush gave a grandchild’s view of his namesake, saying in a eulogy that the senior Bush was “the most gracious, most decent, most humble man that I will ever know,” and someone who always made his family a priority, even as he took on enormous responsibilities to the nation.
The younger Bush remembered his “Gampy” as a man who opened a 1988 presidential campaign book with a reminiscence of time the family shared in Maine, where they played aboard a make-believe boat that grandfather and grandson constructed from rocks.
“In those few words, my grandfather said more about his life than I could ever tell you this morning,” George P. Bush said. “Here’s a man gearing up for the role of a lifetime, and yet his mind went back to his family. This is a book about policy issues, and yet he still found time to write about an imaginary boat that he built with his grandson.”
‘That unique ability to make you feel like he was your best friend’
The Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr., rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, described Bush as “a man of faith” and an “incredible public servant who improved the lives of so many around the world, across the nation, and in our great state of Texas and our beloved city of Houston.”
Levenson recalled Bush and his wife of 73 years, Barbara, who died in April, as “devoted and active” church parishioners of more than 50 years who never sought special treatment, despite their wealth and prominence.
“As we worshipped together, they never made a show or a fuss of arriving, worshipping, or leaving,” he said. “They loved to spend time with the members here.”
Levenson said the former president and first lady had “a favorite spot” where they liked to sit for services.
“But if they arrived and someone had beat them to it, they never created a problem,” he said. “In fact, particularly crowded days — Christmas and Easter — they often relinquished their seats to a mother overloaded with children or a son coming with his elderly parents.
“One particularly cold day,” he continued, “as the president came in the back, he was met by an usher who didn’t have on an overcoat. ‘Aren’t you cold?’ the president asked. And the young man said, ‘Ah, I’m fine.’ But before he could finish his sentence, the president whipped off his own coat and placed it around the gent’s shoulders. And he walked in to worship with a smile and without another word.”
The rector said the former president “had that unique ability to make you feel like he was your best friend, and you were his, and he pulled it off with charm, and humility, and humor with few if any rivals.”Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.