Nation Bids Farewell to 41st President, Former Navy Lt. George H.W. Bush

President Trump's Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, watches as Former Sen. Alan Simpson touches the casket of former President George H.W. Bush as it is carried out by a military honor guard at the National Cathedral, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Trump's Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, watches as Former Sen. Alan Simpson touches the casket of former President George H.W. Bush as it is carried out by a military honor guard at the National Cathedral, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

He was recalled Wednesday as a man of family and resolute will, a combat veteran who was gentle to his core, a statesman and president who "left us a more perfect union," and the endearing best friend who loved a joke but could never remember the punchline.

At the state funeral held in the Washington National Cathedral, former President George W. Bush said his father was an "empathetic man" who "valued character over pedigree, and was never a cynic. He looked for the good in each person and usually found it." The elder Bush taught him to live life "at full throttle -- then sleep," George W. Bush said, bringing smiles to the mourners.

George the son then broke down at the end of the tribute to his forever inspiration and example as "the best father a son or daughter could have."

The passing of George H.W. Bush, who died last Friday in Houston at age 94, was of special significance to the U.S. military. He was one of them, the youngest pilot in the Navy when he was commissioned, and the last commander-in-chief to have served in World War II.

For his last journey in the nation's capital, enlisted troops from all services, with bayonets fixed on their ceremonial rifles, lined the East Front steps of the Capitol as the flag-draped casket bearing Bush's body was borne from the Rotunda to the waiting hearse.

At the foot of the steps, the service chiefs and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford saluted. A Navy band played "Hail to the Chief" and the hymn "Nearer My God To Thee" as the casket was slowly carried to and then gently steered into the hearse, where the Bush family, led by George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush, were standing, hands on hearts.

The hearse and the following cortege proceeded down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House, where Bush served four years as president, preceded by eight as vice president, and where his son served two terms.

In the sparse crowds along the streets, some could be seen wiping away tears as the cortege proceeded to the soaring gothic Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, better known as Washington National Cathedral, the hub of the Episcopal Church in Washington.

Seated in the front row of the cathedral were President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump. Despite the bitter feud between Trump and the Bush family, the late president had willed that Trump be present for the funeral, although he was not invited to speak.

Before the funeral began, Trump sent out a Tweet: "Looking forward to being with the Bush family. This is not a funeral, this is a day of celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life. He will be missed!"

In order, to Melania Trump's left, sat former Presidents and first ladies Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.

For the eulogies, the late president chose two old friends, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming; and his biographer, historian Jon Meacham.

George H.W. Bush was a different kind of president, Meacham said. "He not only led us, he loved us."

Bush was as incapable of bearing a grudge as he sometimes was of having his thoughts catch up with his words and goofy syntax, he added.

Comedian Dana Carvey said, according to Meacham, the trick to impersonating Bush was to sound like "Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne."

Meacham told of the time Bush was campaigning in New Hampshire and distractedly grasped the hand of a mannequin in a department store and began asking for support. His staff pointed out that he was not really talking to a voter. "Never know, gotta' ask," he responded.

However, "George Herbert Walker Bush was America's last great soldier statesman, a 20th century founding father," Meacham said, and "he was our shield in danger's hour. He stood in the breach against tyranny and totalitarianism. An imperfect man, he left us a more perfect union."

Before the military bearers took the casket from the cathedral for the trip to Houston and interment at the Bush library, the Rev. Russell Levenson, rector of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston where Bush worshipped, gave the homily.

Levinson, who was present in the former president's hospital room for his final moments, recalled Bush's constant refrain to sum up his attitude toward life -- CAVU, for "Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited," the words he always wanted to hear as a young combat aviator.

"My hunch is heaven, as perfect as must be, just got a bit kinder and gentler" with the passing of Bush, Levenson said.

"Well done, good and faithful servant," he said, and "welcome to your eternal home, where ceiling and visibility are unlimited and life goes on forever."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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