WASHINGTON — The nation bade farewell on Wednesday to George Herbert Walker Bush, the patriarch of one of the most consequential political dynasties of modern times and the president who presided over the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era of American dominance in the world.
As bells tolled and choirs sang and an honor guard accompanied the coffin, the nation’s 41st president was remembered as a “kinder and gentler” leader at a tumultuous moment whose fortitude steered the country through storms at home and abroad and whose essential decency set a standard for others to meet.
“When the history books are written,” his son, former President George W. Bush, said in a eulogy at Washington National Cathedral, “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.”
George W. Bush, like his father an emotional man given to tearing up over family, struggled to make it through his eulogy, his eyes watery, his face etched with emotion. He held on until the very end, when he choked up and began weeping as he called the former president “the best father a son or daughter could ever have.”
President Donald Trump joined all four living former presidents as well as foreign leaders, lawmakers and Supreme Court justices at the service, but given his history of rancor with the Bush family, he had no speaking role. There was less of an overt sense of rebuke to Trump than at the funeral for Sen. John McCain in September, where he was not invited, but the implicit contrasts between the former and current presidents were hard to miss.
While speakers talked about Bush’s civility, his commitment to the institutions of government and his faith in alliances, Trump was sitting just feet away, his arms sometimes crossed, almost as if in defiance. Without directly saying so, the speakers pushed back against Trump’s mockery of the former president’s volunteerism slogan “a thousand points of light” during campaign rallies this year.
“To us,” the younger Bush said, “his was the brightest of a thousand points of light.”
The elder Bush died on Friday at age 94 after years of struggling with a form of Parkinson’s disease. His coffin, draped in a flag, was taken after the service to Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, where it was loaded aboard one of the blue-and-white presidential jets for a final flight home to Texas.
The state funeral served as a milestone in the life of a country that has moved beyond the type of politics Bush preached and, with notable exceptions, practiced. The moments of bipartisan compromise that marked his presidency feel alien as the politics of anger and division dominate Washington and the country.
As with any funeral, Bush was venerated in death in ways he was not always in life. During his time in politics, he was excoriated by conservatives for breaking his “read my lips” vow not to raise taxes, by liberals for his racially charged campaign tactics and by many across the spectrum for his inattention to the growing economic troubles at home. He garnered just 37 percent of the vote in seeking re-election in 1992, the lowest of any incumbent president in 80 years.
But with the passage of time, Bush has become one of the most admired recent occupants of the Oval Office, ranked third out of the last 10 in polls, behind only Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. For a one-term president, his record looms large. He helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful end, paved the way for the reunification of Germany, launched the Gulf War to expel Iraqi invaders from Kuwait and bolstered America’s standing around the world.
Even his broken tax pledge was hailed on Wednesday as an example of political courage, when he put aside ideology and expedience to cut a bipartisan agreement to reduce the deficit. He was remembered as well for signing landmark legislation on civil rights and the environment, including the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“I believe it will be said that no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled or more honorable than George Herbert Walker Bush,” said former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada, a friend of the former president’s who was asked to deliver a tribute.
Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who became close to Bush as his biographer, called him “America’s last great soldier-statesman, a 20th-century founding father.”
He also effectively explained Bush’s thousand-lights phrase to Trump, seated not far away.
“Abraham Lincoln’s better angels of our nature and George H.W. Bush’s thousand points of light are companion verses in America’s national hymn,” Meacham said. “For Lincoln and Bush both called on us to choose the right over the convenient, to hope rather than to fear and to heed not our worst impulses but our best instincts.”
By now, Bush’s storied life is well known. A son of privilege and product of an elite education at Greenwich Country Day School, Phillips Academy and Yale. One of the youngest navy combat pilots in World War II, shot down over the Pacific and rescued by a submarine. Texas oilman. Congressman. Ambassador to the United Nations. Republican Party chairman. Envoy to China. CIA director. Vice president. President.
But also husband of 73 years, father of six, grandfather of 14 and great-grandfather of eight. Tennis player. Mangler of the English language. Pork rind aficionado. Broccoli hater. Prolific note writer. Practical joker. Avid speed boater. Inventor of speed golf. Geriatric sky diver. Lover of funny socks.
A patrician by background, Bush nonetheless was in many ways the most human of presidents. He was not the towering figure Reagan was, but neither was he as remote. His foibles were easily parodied, but his essential humanity was not. Nearly everyone who gathered in Washington in recent days had a story of a personal note or gesture.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., a longtime friend of the former president, said Bush could have just one letter as his epigraph, L for loyalty. “It coursed through his blood,” he said, “loyalty to his country, loyalty to his family, loyalty to his friends, loyalty to the institutions of government and always, always, always a friend to his friends.”