WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former President George H.W. Bush was hailed at his state funeral on Wednesday as a warrior-statesman of uncommon personal kindness who went from being a hero of American conflicts to representing a bygone era of civility in politics.
Amid an unusual bipartisan spirit at the service at the Washington National Cathedral, both Republican and Democratic politicians honored a president who called for a “kinder, gentler” nation.
Bush, the 41st U.S. president, died last week in Texas aged 94. He occupied the White House from 1989 to 1993, navigating the collapse of the Soviet Union and expelling former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces from oil-rich Kuwait.
“George H.W. Bush was America’s last great soldier-statesman,” Jon Meacham, a presidential biographer, said in a eulogy. “He stood in the breach in the Cold War against totalitarianism. He stood in the breach in Washington against unthinking partisanship,” he said.
At a ceremony full of pomp but also peppered with laughter, the capital’s current political feuds were briefly set aside in honor of the late president, a naval aviator who survived being shot down by Japanese forces over the Pacific Ocean in World War Two, and a former head of the CIA during the Cold War.
A patrician figure, Bush was voted out of office in part for failing to connect with ordinary Americans during an economic recession.
But he has been remembered as representing an earlier era of civility in American politics, that image burnished in recent years by the divisiveness and anger in the United States that accompanied the rise of President Donald Trump.
Former President George W. Bush said his father “valued character over pedigree, and he was no cynic. He’d look for the good in each person, and he usually found it.”
“The best father a son or daughter could ever have,” the former president said in his eulogy, his voice cracking with emotion as he spoke near his father’s flag-draped coffin.
The flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush arrives carried by a military honor guard during a State Funeral at the National Cathedral, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, in Washington. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS
TEARS AND MEMORIES
Taking his seat at the cathedral, Trump shook hands with his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, who he has often sharply criticized.
Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 election opponent, and her husband former President Bill Clinton shared the front pew with Trump, Obama, and their spouses.
Trump, like Bush a Republican, infuriated the late president by attacking his sons, George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, a rival in the 2016 Republican primary campaign.
Trump sat mostly motionless next to first lady Melania Trump throughout much of the service.
He had tweeted earlier that he was “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!”
Bush did not endorse Trump in the 2016 presidential election. He did not publicly say who he voted for but a source told CNN at the time that he had voted for Hillary Clinton.
Bush, who was ailing in recent years, did send Trump a letter in January 2017 saying he would not be able to attend his inauguration because of health concerns, but wishing him the best.
All surviving former U.S. presidents were at the cathedral. During one of the eulogies, Bill Clinton wiped away tears and former first lady Michelle Obama leaned over to pat him on the arm.