Though he was hailed as “America’s last great soldier-statesman, a 20th century founding father,” the life of President George H.W. Bush was epitomized at Wednesday’s state funeral in Washington as a man who loved his family and was loyal to his friends.
In the presence of all five living current and former presidents, and world leaders such as Prince Charles of Britain and the king and queen of Jordan, former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson recounted how his lifelong friend, the 41st president, publicly showed his support at perhaps the lowest point in the senator’s political career.
“In George Bush’s theme of life, during all the highs and lows, was a simple credo: what would we do without family and friends?” said Simpson.
“He was a man of such great humility. Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C. are not bothered by heavy traffic,” the senator said in one of the many moments in his eulogy that drew laughter.
Simpson said Bush was the most decent man he knew and “never hated anyone.”
As their mothers taught them, the senator said, “hatred corrodes the container it is contained in.”
‘Why was I spared?’
Bush’s oldest son, the 43rd president, George W. Bush, remained composed throughout his eulogy, punctuated with humorous anecdotes, until the end.
The tears began as he described “the best father a son or daughter could have.”
“And in our grief, let us smile knowing that Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom’s hand again,” he said, now overcome with emotion, referring to his sister who died at the age of 3 of leukemia.
Bush said his father “always taught us that failure is part of a full life but never allow yourself to be defined by it.”
Several speakers, including Bush’s biographer, historian Jon Meacham, referred to perhaps the defining moment of Bush’s life. At the age of 20, the plane piloted by the future president was shot down in the Pacific during World War II after completing a bombing run.
The only member of his crew to survive, Bush asked himself, nearly daily, in the ensuing decades: “Why me? Why was I spared?”
“And in a sense, the rest of his life was a perennial effort to prove himself worthy of his salvation on that distant morning,” the historian said.
Meacham said that “to him, his life was no longer his own.”
“There were always more missions to undertake, more lives to touch, and more love to give,” he said. “And what a headlong race he made of it all. He never slowed down.”
George W. Bush remarked that his father had only two speeds: “full throttle and sleep.”
Famed Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, who sang “Silent Night” to Bush in his final hours Friday, sang “Last Full Measure of Devotion” at the service Wednesday, accompanied by the Armed Forces Chorus and the United States Marine Orchestra. Later, he sang “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Along with soaring anthems that reached the majestic cathedral’s vaulted ceiling, an estimated 3,000 people in attendance sang the hymns “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven” and “The King of love my shepherd is.”
They were reminded of Jesus’ words as the flag-draped casket proceeded up the center aisle: “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
Lauren Bush Lauren and Ashley Walker Bush, daughters of Neil Bush, read from Isaiah. George W. Bush’s eldest daughter, Jenna Bush Hager, read from Revelation the apostle John’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” where there “will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” and the “old order” will have passed.
In a change of pace from the high-church anthems, contemporary Christian recording artist Michael W. Smith sang his trademark song “Friends,” accompanied by the choir and orchestra. Christianity Today reported Smith sang it “as a personal farewell to the leader who, to his surprise, became his longtime friend and fan.”
‘That’s a lot about me, Jon’
Meacham said Bush’s credo, which he learned from his devout mother, was, “Tell the truth, don’t blame people, be strong, do your best, try hard, forgive, stay the course.”
Shortly after the service, NBC reporter Willie Geist tweeted that Meacham shared his eulogy with Bush before the president’s death.
Bush was typically self-effacing when he heard the speech, according to Geist’s report, saying, “That’s a lot about me, Jon.”
Meacham said Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” and Bush’s thousand points of light are “companion verses in America’s national hymn.”
The 41st president, he said, “made our lives and the lives of nations freer, better, warmer and nobler.”
It was Meacham who described Bush as “America’s last great soldier-statesman, a 20th century founding father.”
‘Part of a courageous generation’
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was Bush’s best friend on the world stage and remained close to the end.
He opened asking mourners if they recalled what they were doing the summer of their 20th year.
While Mulroney was home “safe and sound” and enjoying his mother’s cooking while he earned money for law school, “20-year-old Lieutenant George Bush was preparing to attack Japanese war installations in the Pacific.”
“He was part of a courageous generation of young Americans who led the charge against overwhelming odds in the historic and bloody battle for supremacy in the Pacific against the colossal military might of imperial Japan,” Mulroney said. “That’s what George Bush did the summer he turned 20.”
The former Canadian leader said that half a century or a century from now, historians will say “that in the life of this country, the United States, which is, in my judgment, the greatest democratic republic that God has ever placed on the face of this earth, I believe it will be said that no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled, and more honorable than George Herbert Walker Bush.”
‘It was a beautiful beginning’
The Bushes’ pastor in Houston, Russell Levenson Jr., rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, was present when the former president died Friday.
He movingly recalled the president’s close friend, his secretary of state, James Baker, being at the foot of the bed.
Earlier in the day, Baker whispered to Levenson, “You know, that man changed my life.”
Near the end, Baker rubbed Bush’s feet for about half an hour, Levenson said.
“The president smiled at the comfort of his dear friend,” he said, remarking Baker’s act reminded him of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
As the minister spoke Wednesday, a television camera captured a weeping Baker in the audience.
“Here I witnessed a world leader who was serving a servant who had been our world’s leader,” Levenson said.
At the end, he said, “we all knelt, we all place our hands on the president.”
“We said our prayers together, and then we were silent for a full, long measure, as this man who changed all of our lives, who changed our nation, who changed our world, left this life for the next.
“It as a beautiful end, it was a beautiful beginning.”
See the full ceremony: