US bids farewell to former president George HW Bush

Mike Theiler, Reuters | A military honour guard bears the casket of the late former president at the US Capitol on December 5.

The United States bid farewell to former president George HW Bush at a solemn Washington service on Wednesday attended by Donald Trump and all four living former presidents as well as a number of foreign dignitaries.


A military band played "Hail to the Chief" as the casket of the 41st president was carried down the steps of the US Capitol, with members of the Bush family watching and a cannon salute. Bush died on Friday at the age of 94.

A motorcade conveyed the hearse to the Washington National Cathedral ceremony, slowing in front of the White House. Bush's route was lined with well-wishers bundled in winter hats and taking photos.

A military colour guard stood at attention as the hearse arrived. Former president George W. Bush placed his hand over his heart as military pallbearers carried his father's casket up the steps to the cathedral.

Wednesday's ceremonies capped three days of remembrance in the nation's capital by dignitaries and ordinary citizens as they honoured the Republican president who oversaw the post-Cold War transition and led a successful Gulf War, only to lose re-election in a generational shift to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.

All four living ex-presidents were in attendance – among them George W. Bush, who eulogised his father – as well as President Donald Trump. Royalty from Jordan, Britain, Bahrain and some of the world’s top politicians, including Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, represented more than a dozen countries.

President and war hero

Reporting from Washington, FRANCE 24’s Philip Crowther said the gathering of US presidents created a “sense of unity at this time of such fierce political divisions”.

“Of course, it’s anybody’s guess how long that kind of unity might last. But for the time being, from the current President Donald Trump there have been fewer aggressive tweets. There has certainly been an attempt, at least, to show a sense of unity between the current president and his predecessors,” Crowther said.

Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted that he was "looking forward to being with the Bush family", calling the day a "celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life". 

Inside the cathedral, Trump shook hands with the Obamas but did not shake hands with Bill and Hillary Clinton, who looked straight ahead.

He was somebody who was at the heart of US government, he was a statesman throughout his life. He will be remembered for being a World War II veteran, a war hero here in the United States, that then led him to have a very long career,” Crowther said. 

He added that, for those who primarily remember Bush as a president, “the most important event was probably the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the fact that George HW Bush was the president for the official end of the Cold War, thereby shepherding the United States into a whole new era".

Domestically, however, he will also be remembered for the reasons why he didn’t get a second term as US president. Bush lost the White House to a Democrat in part because he raised taxes after famously, and publicly, promising not to.

FRANCE 24's Crowther: 'A statesman throughout his life'

‘Sincere guy’

Soldiers and civilians wound through the Capitol building's Rotunda on Tuesday to view Bush's casket and honour a president whose legacy included military service during World War II and passing a landmark law affirming the rights of the disabled. Former senator Bob Dole  a Bush compatriot in war, peace and political struggle  was helped out of his wheelchair to salute his old friend and one-time rival.

Bush's remains will be returned to Houston to lie in repose at St. Martin's Episcopal Church before burial Thursday at the family plot on the grounds of the presidential library at Texas A&M University in College Station. His final resting place will be alongside Barbara Bush  his wife of 73 years, who died in April  and Robin Bush, the daughter they lost to leukemia in 1953 at the age of 3.

Trump ordered the federal government closed Wednesday for a national day of mourning. Flags on public buildings will be flying at half-staff for 30 days.

The CIA also honoured Bush, its former director and the only spy chief ever to become president, as three agency leaders past and present joined the public for the in-state viewing.

No presidential eulogy

Bush's death brought together both Republicans and Democrats who believe that he possessed a level of dignity and grace that deserved to be remembered on a cold, overcast day in the capital.

"I'm just here to pay my respects," said Jane Hernandez, a retired physician in the heavily Democratic city. "I wasn't the biggest fan of his presidency, but all in all, he was a good, sincere guy doing a really hard job as best he could."

"He was so qualified, and I think he was just a decent man," said Sharon Terry, touring Washington with friends from an Indianapolis garden club. Her friend Sue Miller, also in line for the viewing, said: "I actually think I underestimated him when he was in office. My opinion of him went up seeing how he conducted himself as a statesman afterward."

Fred Curry, one of the few African-Americans in line, was a registered Democrat from Hyattsville, Maryland, who voted for Bush in 1988, the only election he won. "Honestly I just liked him," Curry said. "He seemed like a sincere and decent man, and you couldn't argue with his qualifications."

Foreign dignitaries also paid their respects to the Texan whose service to his country spanned more than three-quarters of a century, from World War II through his final years as an advocate for volunteerism and aid for people displaced by natural disasters.

George W. Bush said in his eulogy that, to the Bush family, “his was the brightest of a thousand points of light”.

At the end of his speech, he broke down briefly while discussing the daughter his parents lost as a toddler and his mother Barbara. He said he took comfort in knowing that, "Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom's hand again."

For all the sombre tributes to the late president's public service and strength of character, laughter also filled the cathedral.

Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, regaled the congregation with stories from his years as Bush's friend in Washington. More seriously, he recalled that when he went through a rough patch in the political game, Bush conspicuously stood by him against the advice of aides. "You would have wanted him on your side," he said.

Bush "loved a good joke, the richer the better", Simpson said. "And he threw his head back and gave that great laugh, but he never, ever could remember a punchline. And I mean never."

Despite Bush's long record as a leading Republican, Trump's relationship with him  and indeed the Bush family  has been tense. The current president mocked the elder Bush for his 1988 "thousand points of light" call to volunteerism, challenged his son's legacy as president and trounced another son, whom he dubbed "low-energy" Jeb Bush, in the Republican presidential primaries en route to office.

The late president, for his part, once called Trump a "blowhard".

Those differences have been smoothed over for now, but the funeral service marked the first time since Lyndon Johnson's death in 1973 that a sitting president was not asked to eulogise a recently deceased president.

After the service, the hearse and a long motorcade drove to the National Mall to pass by the World War II Memorial  a nod to the late president's service as a Navy pilot before arriving atJoint Base Andrews for the flight to Texas. At Andrews, cannons roared again and "Hail to the Chief" was played for him for a final time in the capital.

Bush's death reduces membership in the ex-presidents club to four: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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