WASHINGTON -- Mourners from across the nation gathered Wednesday to pay their respects and celebrate the life of former President George H.W. Bush at a state funeral at the Washington National Cathedral.
With bells tolling and choirs singing, the nation's 41st president was remembered as a "kinder and gentler" leader whose fortitude steered the country through storms at home and abroad.
President Donald Trump joined all four living former U.S. presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W. Bush -- as well as foreign leaders, lawmakers and Supreme Court justices at Wednesday's service.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and members of Arkansas' congressional delegation also attended the service.
Former President George W. Bush, eulogized his father, saying the elder Bush had "showed me what it means to be a president that serves with integrity, leads with courage and acts with love in his heart for the citizens of our country."
He remembered his father as someone who "valued character over pedigree," who "showed us how setbacks can strengthen," and who, with his optimism, "made his children believe anything was possible."
"To us," the younger Bush said, "his was the brightest of a thousand points of light."
He elicited a few laughs from the crowd, particularly when he recalled his father's longtime friend, James Baker, sneaking in Grey Goose vodka and steak when the elder Bush was in the hospital in his later years.
His father enjoyed a good joke and had an email list where he and others would share their favorites -- including some off-color ones, Bush said.
"To us he was close to perfect, but not totally perfect. ... The man couldn't stomach vegetables, especially broccoli," Bush said, in a reference to the food famously loathed by his father. "And, by the way, he passed these genetic defects on to us."
He said he once heard that "the idea is to die young as late as possible," something his father certainly did.
"One reason Dad knew how to die young was that he almost did it -- twice," Bush said, referring to his father having had a staph infection as a teenager, and later being shot down while serving as a Navy pilot in World War II.
"For Dad's part, I think those brushes with death made him cherish the gift of life."
Bush broke down at the end of his remarks as he recalled his father as the "best father," and prompted applause from the crowd after saying that he smiles "knowing that Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom's hand again."
Robin was George H.W. and Barbara Bush's daughter, who died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953.
Bush was also remembered as "America's last great soldier-statesman" by biographer Jon Meacham, one of four people who delivered eulogies at the service.
"An imperfect man, he left us a more perfect union," Meacham said of the 41st president.
His remarks included some gentle ribbing of the late president, who had acknowledged that public speaking wasn't his strongest suit.
"'Fluency in English,' President Bush once remarked, 'is something that I'm often not accused of,'" Meacham said, adding: "His tongue may have run amok at times, but his heart was steadfast."
Meacham also recounted Bush being shot down as a Navy pilot in 1944 and barely escaping death.
"And so we ask, as he so often did: Why him? Why was he spared?" Meacham said. "The workings of providence are mysterious, but this much is clear: the George Herbert Walker Bush who survived that fiery fall into the waters of the Pacific made our lives, and the lives of nations, freer, better, warmer, nobler."
The day's second eulogy was given by former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, whose last four years in office overlapped with Bush's term as president.
"Fifty or 100 years from now, as historians review the accomplishments and the context of all who have served as president, I believe it will be said 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," Mulroney said.
He hailed Bush's foreign and domestic policy achievements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he said had been "modernized and improved by recent administrations."
Mulroney said that when world leaders dealt with Bush, they "knew that they were dealing with a gentleman, a genuine leader, one that was distinguished, resolute and brave."
Former Sen. Alan Simpson prompted some laughs from the crowd with a self-deprecating speech in which he celebrated his friendship with Bush, which began more than five decades ago in 1962. Bush stood by him through his darkest times, Simpson said.
"My life in Washington was rather tumultuous," he said. "I went from the 'A' social list to the 'Z,' and never came back to the 'A.' In one dark period I was feeling awful low, and all my wounds were self-inflicted."
When he questioned Bush about his decision to stand by him, Simpson said Bush responded, "This is about friendship and loyalty."
Bush loved a good joke, Simpson added, but he "never, ever could remember a punchline -- and I mean never."
The Rev. Russell Levenson, rector of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, delivered the homily, drawing tears from some in the crowd.
"My hunch is heaven just got a bit kinder and gentler. ... Welcome to your eternal home, where ceiling and visibility are unlimited, and life goes on forever," Levenson said.
FLIGHT BACK TO TEXAS
After three days of remembrance in the capital city, the plane that serves as Air Force One left Joint Base Andrews in Maryland with Bush's casket for a final service in Houston and then burial in the family plot on the presidential library grounds at Texas A&M University in College Station. His final resting place will be alongside his wife, Barbara, and their daughter Robin.
He received a 21-gun salute as part of Wednesday's departure ceremony.
His plane, which was dubbed "Special Airlift Mission 41" in honor of the 41st president, arrived at Ellington Field outside Houston in late afternoon.
Bush will lie in repose at St. Martin's Episcopal Church before his burial today.
Earlier Wednesday, a military band played "Hail to the Chief" as Bush's casket was carried down the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where he had lain in state. Family members looked on as servicemen fired off a cannon salute.
His hearse was then driven in a motorcade to the cathedral ceremony, slowing in front of the White House, the route lined much of the way with people bundled in winter hats and taking photos.
Trump tweeted Wednesday that the day marked "a celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life."
Bush's death makes Carter, also 94 but more than 100 days younger, the nation's oldest former president still living.
Bush was a son of privilege and the 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, he was shot down over the Pacific and rescued by a submarine. He was a Texas oilman, a congressman, an ambassador to the United Nations, a Republican Party chairman, an envoy to China, a CIA director, a vice president and a president.
He also was a husband of 73 years, a father of six, a grandfather of 14 and a great-grandfather of eight. He was a tennis player, a mangler of the English language, a pork rind aficionado, a broccoli hater, a prolific note writer, a practical joker, an avid speed boater, an inventor of speed golf, a geriatric sky diver and a lover of funny socks.
Bush touched many lives on a personal level. Nearly everyone who gathered in Washington in recent days had a story of a personal note or gesture from him.
Simpson, in his eulogy, 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."
Information for this article was contributed by John Wagner, Felicia Sonmez, Elise Viebeck, Sueng Min Kim, Patricia Sullivan and Michael E. Miller of The Washington Post; by Peter Baker of The New York Times; and by Calvin Woodward, Laurie Kellman, Ashraf Khalil and Darlene Superville of The Associated Press.
An honor guard carries the coffin bearing the body of former President George H.W. Bush out of the National Cathedral on Wednesday at the end of his funeral. Family members trail behind.
A service member pays respects at the flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush in St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, after it was flown from Washington on Air Force One following Wednesday’s funeral.
Former President George W. Bush greets past and present presidents Wednesday before the start of his father’s funeral.
Former President George W. Bush fights back tears as he delivers a eulogy at the service.
A Section on 12/06/2018
Print Headline: Nation bids farewell to Bush: In D.C., he is honored with tears and smiles