The nation’s capital saluted the 41st President of the United States for one final time on Wednesday, with America’s leaders past and present gathering to honor former President George H.W. Bush, who died last Friday at the age of 94, as Mr. Bush was praised as a family man with a big heart, who will be remembered for much more than what he did in his four years in the White House.
Bush’s son, former President George W. Bush, delivered an emotional eulogy, calling his father a patriot for leaving school to go into military service in World War II.
“The horizons he saw were bright and hopeful,” Bush the son said. “He was genuinely optimistic man, and that optimism guided his children and made each of them believe that anything was possible.”
“He was born with just two settings: full throttle, and then sleep,” the 43rd President said to chuckles.
“Of course, Dad taught me another special lesson – 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,” Mr. Bush said of his father.
The 43rd President’s voice cracked as he finished his eulogy; the audience erupted into applause.
Former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming repeatedly brought the mourners to laughter, telling funny stories of his long time friendship with Bush, casting the former President as a man of humility and bipartisanship.
“He never, ever could remember a punch line,” Simpson said to chuckles. “He never lost his sense of humor; humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive moments of life. He never hated anyone.”
“He was a man of such great humility,” Simpson. “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, DC are not bothered by heavy traffic,” Simpson deadpanned.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney spoke fondly of his friendship with Bush, labeling him a foreign policy giant who would long be remembered around the world for his stewardship of the United States, especially at the end of the Cold War.
“Every single head of government in the world knew that they were dealing with a gentleman, a genuine leader, one who was distinguished, resolute, and brave,” Mulroney said.
Presidential historian Jon Meacham spoke of Bush’s story of being shot down after a bombing run in the Pacific during World War II.
“The future 41st President of the United States was alone,” Meacham said, describing Bush bobbing around in a life raft. “And he wept.”
But a few hours later, Bush was miraculously rescued by an American submarine, as Meacham noted, ‘the rest of his life was a perennial effort to prove himself worthy on that distant morning,’ labeling the President a ’20th Century founding father.’
Inside the cathedral were over 3,000 mourners, highlighted by the array of living Presidents and Vice Presidents, former Bush Administration aides, friends, family, and even journalists who covered the ex-President, like Sam Donaldson and Ann Compton of ABC News.
The day began with the final few people filing past the casket of the former President, Lying in State in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, on the same funeral bier used for President Lincoln after his assassination in 1865.
Several hours later, with the Bush family standing in a line outside on the plaza, a military honor guard took Mr. Bush’s remains from the Rotunda, as a 21 gun salute sounded from the other side of the Capitol.
The state funeral took place after almost 36 hours of public viewing in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, as thousands of people stood in the cold for an opportunity to view the flag-draped casket of the 41st President.
In line were people from all walks of life, all political stripes – but all of them who felt the need to make their way to the Capitol.
“He was a great man,” said former Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD), a more moderate Republican who was elected to Congress two years before Bush won the White House.
“I found him to be a man of compassion, commitment, and character,” Morella added.
The Rotunda was jammed with people not only like Morella – but others who had witnessed the 41st President up close.
“I served on the staff here in the House of Representatives during the Bush presidency,” said Rudy de Leon, who was a top Pentagon official during the Clinton Administration – de Leon said it was important to be at the Capitol.
“I think just to pay our respects for an era that sort of was very different from today,” de Leon said.