WASHINGTON — President George H.W. Bush was hailed as a decent and humble leader, a steadfast friend and father, and the "last great soldier-statesman” at a state funeral Wednesday attended by five presidents, several world leaders and scores of dignitaries.
In a poignant moment, former President George W. Bush choked up as he ended his tribute to his father — one former president to another — by telling him “we are going to miss you” and calling him “a great and noble man, the best father a son or daughter could have.”
The celebration of Bush’s life at the Washington National Cathedral covered his history from his near death as a young World War II navy aviator to his creation of a new world order as a one-term president to his parachute jump as a daredevil in his 90s.
“George H.W. Bush was America’s last great soldier-statesman,” said presidential historian and Bush biographer Jon Meacham in his eulogy. “He stood in the breach of the Cold War against totalitarianism. He stood in the breach against unthinking partisanship.”
Yet Meacham also told humorous stories about the 41st president, who served from 1989 to 1993. Meacham said that while Bush was seeking votes during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, he once grabbed the hand of a store mannequin. When he realized his mistake, Bush said, “Never know. Got to ask.”
And Meacham said for a man of private eloquence and diplomacy, Bush’s public speaking “was not his strong suit.” As the economy slowed late in his term, Meacham recalled, Bush said, “We’re enjoying sluggish times, but we’re not enjoying them very much.”
The service also brought a rare and awkward cease-fire in Washington’s partisan wars to the Cathedral, where top officials of present and past administrations from both parties sat side-by-side in remembrance of a pragmatic conservative Republican from another era. Still, tensions persisted.
President Donald Trump and the first lady shook hands as they took their seats with former President Barack Obama and Michele Obama, but they did not acknowledge former presidents Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, or Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent in 2016, who looked straight ahead.
Although Trump taunted both George W. and Jeb Bush and ridiculed their father’s call to voluntarism dubbed the “1,000 points of light,” the Bushes said they would not take aim at him. The Bushes did not invite Trump to speak.
Yet the contrast between the genteel George H.W. Bush and confrontational Trump emerged in the eulogies that praised Bush’s much-missed civility, loyalty to friends and sense of duty that put country over self — even at the cost of a second term by agreeing to a necessary tax hike.
Recalling that 1990 budget agreement, former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming brought laughter when he said it required “a critical ingredient called revenue. Translated into the word ‘taxes.’ Translated into the words, ‘read my lips.’”
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney praised Bush’s international leadership in bringing an end to the Cold War, overseeing the reunification of Germany and building a coalition to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
“When George Bush was president,” Mulroney said, “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.”
World leaders in the Cathedral included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Polish President Andrzej Duda and King Abdullah II of Jordan, as well as several former leaders, including former Polish President Lech Walesa.
Mulroney did address one Trump complaint, praising the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which Trump has repeatedly disparaged as one of the worst trade deals ever. Mulroney noted NAFTA had been "recently modified and improved," but he defended it for creating "the largest and richest free trade area in the history of the world."
George W. Bush held up his father as a role model. “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.
“He valued character over pedigree and he was no cynic. He looked for the good in each person and he usually found it. Dad taught us that public service is noble and necessary,” Bush said. “To us, his was the brightest of 1,000 points of light.”
The Bush family sat together, alternately laughing and dabbing their eyes. Bush granddaughters Lauren Bush Lauren and Ashley Walker read a passage from Isaiah and granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager read from Revelations.
Bush said when he heard his father was fading, he called him on the phone. “I said, ‘Dad, I love you and you've been a wonderful father,’” Bush said. “And the last words he would ever say on earth were: ‘I love you, too.’”
After the service, Bush’s coffin was flown to Houston. The coffin laid in repose at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where another funeral service will be held Thursday morning.
Later Thursday, the coffin will be put on a funeral car on a train to Texas A&M University in College Station. There, next to the grave of Barbara, his wife of 73 years, Bush will be interred at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.