In a state funeral that leavened pomp with humor, President George Herbert Walker Bush was celebrated Wednesday as a man who melded character with self-deprecation — a statesman who managed the peaceful end of the Cold War and patriarch of one of America’s most successful political dynasties.
“To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light,” said his son, President George W. Bush, in a funeral service at the National Cathedral in Washington — a reference to his father’s oft-quoted call for volunteerism.
America’s five living presidents were among the hundreds of dignitaries and elected leaders, spanning decades of public service, crowded into the pews to remember Bush, a one-term president whose collegial style and grace helped him become increasingly popular as the nation’s political chasm widened.
“He accepted that failure is a part of living a full life, but taught us never to be defined by failure,” George W. Bush said, choking back tears at one point when recalling his father’s devotion to his family.
Eulogies focused on Bush’s compassion and foreign policy prowess, which navigated the U.S. and its European allies through the collapse of the Soviet Union and led an international coalition in 1991 to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
“He stood in the breach of the Cold War against totalitarianism. He stood in the breach in Washington against unthinking partisanship,” said Jon Meacham, his biographer, who delivered the first eulogy. “On his watch, a wall fell in Berlin, a dictator’s aggression did not stand.”
Meacham called Bush, a naval aviator shot down during World War II, “America’s last, great soldier-statesman, a 20th century founding father,” in the tradition of U.S. presidents who believed in causes larger than themselves.
“An imperfect man, he left us a more perfect union,” Meacham said.
The world’s most exclusive club — Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — all listened with their wives, sitting together in the front row. It marked the first time all had been together since Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, after a bitter campaign in which Trump had criticized nearly every one of them.
The large Bush family — including Jeb Bush, who served two terms as Florida governor and ran unsuccessfully for president — laughed at the memories of First Lady Barbara Bush’s straight talk, cried in recounting the death of sister Robin at 3 years old and nodded in recognition at references to Bush’s love of off-color jokes and digs at his own expense.
Trump was invited toattend, but in a break with modern tradition, wasnot offered a chance to speak. He was the first sitting president not to make the speakers’ program at the funeral of a predecessor since President Nixon failed to eulogize Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973.
Trump looked uncomfortable at times, sitting in the front row and rubbing his hands between his knees as speakers one by one praised Bush’s modesty,bipartisan spirit and fealty to multinationalism. He shook hands with the Obamas when he arrived, but avoided greeting either President Clinton or Hillary Clinton, who stared straight ahead.
When President George W. Bush arrived a few minutes later, he shook each of the presidents’ and first ladies’ hands, and appeared to sneak a piece of candy to Michelle Obama.
The elder Bush “was a man of such great humility,” said former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, 87. “Those who traveled the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
In another implied rebuke of today’s Washington, Simpson added that Bush understood that “hatred corrodes the container it is carried in.”
The signature Bush slogans that sometimes drew mockery from Trump and others during Bush’s own life — “a thousand points of light,” “a kinder, gentler” nation — were celebrated as sincere reflections of his essence.
“My hunch is heaven, as perfect as it must be, just got a bit kinder and gentler,” said the Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson Jr., rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.
“Some have said in the last few days, ‘This is an end of an era,’” Levenson said at another point. “But it does not have to be. Perhaps it’s an invitation to fill the hole that has been left behind.”
It was not just Bush’s old rhetoric that was given a nostalgic reboot. The policy achievements his eulogists chose to highlight demonstrated how much has changed in both the country and the Republican Party that Bush and his family personified for half a century: the updating of the Clean Air Act, the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement, the assembly of an international coalition to end Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait.
Simpson even recalled how Bush broke his “read my lips” pledge and agreed to raise taxes, a decision that was “surely one of the main factors ensuring his return to private life.”
“I’ll never forget it,” Simpson said. “He said, ‘What I have said on that subject sure puts a hell of a lot of heat on me.’” His own party turned on him after that, Simpson recalled.
“But he often said, ‘When the really tough choices come, it’s the country, not me — it’s not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s for our country that I fought for,’” Simpson recalled Bush saying.
Though Bush later acknowledged that his 1992 defeat made him bitter and angry for a time, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that by 2001 — after Jeb Bush became governor of Florida and George W. Bush won the presidency — the elder Bush and former first lady found serenity.
He read from notes he made during a long private discussion he had withthe former president at the time, while visiting himat the family retreat called Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine.
“They are truly at peace with themselves, joyous in what they and the children have achieved, gratified by the goodness that God has bestowed upon them all, and genuinely content with the thrill and the promise of each passing day,” Mulroney said.
Government offices closed Wednesday and flags around the nation flew at half-staff to honor the last president from the so-called Greatest Generation.
In lighter moments, Meacham joked about Bush’s famous malapropisms and the nasally voice made famous in the impersonation by comedian Dana Carvey, who said it was inspired by “Mister Rogers trying to be John Wayne.”
George W. Bush acknowledged that his father was “not totally perfect.… His short game was lousy. He wasn’t exactly Fred Astaire on the dance floor. The man couldn’t stomach vegetables, especially broccoli.”
Although Trump has repeatedly criticized and mocked the Bushes, the family deliberately avoided using the funeral to make an overt political statement against him. Trump was excluded from Sen. John McCain’s memorial service at the same cathedral in September and not invited to Barbara Bush’s April service in Texas.
But even though Trump’s name was not mentioned, many saw the eulogies and descriptions of Bush as, at best, unflattering comparisons to Trump, and worst, subtle digs at his “America first” policies and bombastic personality.
Since Bush’s death Friday at age 94 at his home in Houston, Trump has showered the family with condolences and tributes.
On Tuesday afternoon, Trump and First Lady Melania Trump exchanged embraces with the Bush family at Blair House, the president’s official guest quarters. Trump granted them use of Air Force One, as the plane is known when the president is aboard, for transporting the casket and the large family to and from Texas, where a second funeral will be held on Thursday.
Bush, whose close friends and family sometimes called him “41” to mark his order in the presidential procession, helped plan details of the funeral, which like others was carefully choreographed years in advance.
“41 didn’t like the idea at all of this whole week,” said Chris Begala, a member of Bush’s media team. “You’d be surprised how many times he would say, ‘Do you really think people will come?’ ”
Begala said Bush had joked that he wished to set a record for the shortest presidential funeral ever.
“That is not going to be granted,” he said.
During the nearly two-hour service, President Clinton nodded when George W. Bush noted how his father eventually became the unlikeliest of mentors for the Democrat who defeated him in 1992, after both left office and were focused on their post-presidencies.
And many in the room wept when the younger Bush recounted speaking to his father on the phone Friday, shortly before he died.
“I said, ‘Dad, I love you and you’ve been a wonderful father,’” George W. said. “And the last words he would ever say on Earth were, ‘I love you too.’”