From a son to a dad, from one president to another, George W. Bush choked back tears Wednesday in eulogizing George H.W. Bush as “the best father a son and daughter could ever have.” in a ceremony that had 3,000 mourners who came together across party lines at Washington National Cathedral to remember the nation’s 41st president.
While lauding his political career and hailing him as a great president, the younger Bush also focused on the elder’s sense of humour, commitment to public service, and extraordinary energy that carried him through 94 years.
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 soldier-statesman, 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.”
Those missions continued well into his senior years, the younger Bush recalled, including racing his speedboat, Fidelity, off the Maine coast at age 85 and parachuting out of a plane at 90.
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, when he assembled a coalition of 29 disparate nations against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
“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,” Mulroney said.
Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, known for his sense of humor, recalled Bush’s love of family and friends, as well as his humility.
“Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic,” Simpson deadpanned.
Several 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. They noted his signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
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 Simpson said, he could never remember a punch line.
Meacham triggered laughter in the crowd 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.”
“He was born with just two settings – full throttle, then sleep,” the 43rd president said of the 41st.
Saying “the idea is to die young as late as possible,” Bush celebrated a life that ranged from flying combat missions in World War II at age 20, racing his speedboat Fidelity in his 80s, and making a parachute jump to mark his 90th birthday.
Joking about George H.W. Bush’s game of “speed golf”, his son theorized that “he played fast so he could move on to the next event – to enjoy the rest of the day, to expand his enormous energy, to live at all.”
The younger Bush’s eulogy was another marker in a historic and close relationship, the first father-and-son presidents since John Adams and John Quincy Adams two centuries ago.
George H.W. Bush encouraged his first son to be his own man, and George W. Bush complied by occasionally distancing himself from his less conservative father as they developed separate and competing legacies.
At the same time, the Bushes frequently expressed their love for each other and served as each other’s biggest cheerleader.
In his eulogy, the son recalled a man who prayed daily for the soul of 3-year-old daughter Robin after her death of cancer, enjoyed the occasional off-colour joke and collected an array of friends who included Bill Clinton, the Democrat who ousted him from office in the 1992 presidential election.
“To his very last days, dad’s life was instructive,” George W. Bush said in his eulogy, adding that “he showed us how setbacks can strengthen.” He talked about his father coped with the passing of wife Barbara Bush this past April.
The younger Bush referenced the fact that people could try his father’s patience – “I know I did” – but “he always responded with the great gift of unconditional love.”
Historians will be very kind to his one-term presidency, Bush said, citing his father’s diplomatic accomplishments in winding down the Cold War. He said George H.W. Bush also taught the world “that public service is noble and necessary.”
In joking about how his father could laugh about himself, George W. Bush cited some of his father’s greatest hits.
“To us, he was close to perfect – but not totally perfect,” the younger Bush said. “His short game was lousy. He wasn’t exactly Fred Astaire on the dance floor. The man couldn’t stomach vegetables … especially broccoli.”
He added: “And by the way, he passed these genetic defects along to us.”
When his father moved the family to Midland, Texas, to enter the oil business, he kept his balance, Bush said.
“He was a tolerant man, after all,” Bush said. “He was kind and neighbourly to the women with whom he, mom and I shared a bathroom in our small duplex even after he learned their profession: Ladies of the night.”
Referencing his father’s program to promote volunteerism, the son said he was “the brightest of a thousand points of light.”
George H.W. Bush was also a man who stayed active until his dying day. Beyond the speed boating and parachuting, the younger Bush said his father once enjoyed a Grey Goose vodka that long-time friend James Baker managed to smuggle into his hospital room.
“Apparently, it paired well with the steak Baker had delivered from Morton’s,” Bush said.
On his father’s last day, George W. Bush said he called the hospital to say, “‘Dad, I love you and you’ve been a wonderful father.'”
He added: “And the last words he would ever say on earth were, ‘I love you, too.'”
The sadness is tempered by thoughts that George H.W. Bush is now in a better place, his son said.
“In our grief,” the son said, “let us smile knowing that dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom’s hand again,” Bush said.
Before the service, across town, a departure ceremony was held at the United States Capitol, where the 41st president had been lying in state since Monday evening. A military band played “Nearer My God to Thee” as Bush’s casket was placed in a hearse. George W. Bush and wife Laura looked on, hands over their hearts, before getting into the motorcade themselves for the trip to the cathedral.
The service was the centerpiece of several days of events celebrating Bush’s life and more than three decades of public service, beginning after his service in World War II and continuing after a career in the oil business. He served as a congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee and director of the Central Intelligence Agency before his two terms as Ronald Reagan’s vice president from 1981 to 1989.
He then became the first sitting vice president to be elected president since Martin Van Buren in 1837.
Bush died Friday at age 94.
The state funeral for the 41st president, whose death was met with tributes from around the world, was the first presidential funeral since Gerald Ford died in 2006. Reagan’s funeral was two years earlier, in 2004.
After the service, the casket was being flown to Houston, where Bush will lie in repose at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. A funeral service will be held at the church Thursday. He then will be taken by train to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.
Bush will be laid to rest in a family plot with his wife, Barbara, who died in April, and daughter Pauline Robinson Bush, who died from leukemia at 3 years old in 1953.
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