WASHINGTON — Former President George W. Bush bid farewell Wednesday to the late President George H.W. Bush, in a moving tribute from a son to a father and a president to another president.
“When the history books are written,” Bush told those attending a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral, “they will say that George H.W. Bush was a great president of the United States.”
Choking back emotion but also savoring the humorous moments in the family’s eventful history, Bush spoke of his father in heroic terms as “a man of constant motion,” a father figure who made friends with everyone – including “perhaps the most unlikely of all, the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton” — and a parent whose last words on earth were, “I love you too.”
“To us,” the son said of the father, “his was the brightest of a thousand points of light.”
After three days of funeral events in Washington, Bush was headed home to Texas for more ceremony and then his burial Thursday. After the cathedral 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 World War II Navy pilot, then arrived at Joint Base Andrews.
Cannon roared again, “Hail to the Chief” was played for Bush for a final time in the capital and the plane with his casket and Bush family members aboard took off for Houston. He died Friday at age 94.
Bush biographer and historian Jon Meacham opened Wednesday’s ceremony by saluting Bush as “America’s last great soldier-statesman.”
Meacham recounted Bush’s service as a Navy pilot during World War II, including the harrowing incident in September 1944 when his plane was shot down near the Japanese Island of Chichi Jima. As president, Meacham said, Bush was “a lion who not only led us, but loved us.”
Meacham also recalled humorous moments from the 41st president’s political career, including an incident when Bush, campaigning in a crowded department store, inadvertently shook hands with a mannequin. Rather than flushing in embarrassment, he simply cracked, “You never know,” Meacham said.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney recalled a visit with Bush and his wife Barbara at Kennebunkport in 2001 when Bush told him, “Bar and I could not have asked for better lives.” Barbara Bush, his wife of 73 years, died in April.
Mulroney praised Bush as a strong world leader who helped oversee the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and helped bring about the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, signed into law by his successor, Clinton.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., recalled Bush as a man all about “friendship and loyalty,” whose “own party turned on him” after Bush supported a tax increase after campaigning on a pledge not to raise taxes.
“Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic,” Simpson said to laughter.
The ceremony put victorious and vanquished aspirants for the nation’s highest office in close quarters. Former President Jimmy Carter, who was defeated by President Ronald Reagan and Bush in 1980, sat in the front pew next to his wife Rosalynn Carter.
Next to the Carters sat Clinton, who beat Bush 41 in 1992, and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama.
Before the service began, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump sat down next to the Obamas. Trump shook hands with the Obamas, but there was no handshake with the Clintons. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election.
The other living ex-president, George W. Bush, sat with his wife, former first lady Laura Bush, in a front pew on the other side of the aisle with other members of the Bush family.
Next to the 43rd president and first lady sat Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor whom Trump dubbed “low energy Jeb” as he trounced him in the 2016 GOP primaries.
While the family of the late Sen. John McCain, another GOP icon who died in August, made it clear they did not want Trump to attend McCain’s memorial service, the Bushes had made it known that the the family would welcome Trump at the service for the 41st president.
Before leaving the White House, Trump tweeted, “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!”
Earlier Trump had declared Wednesday a National Day of Mourning, which closed most of the federal government.
Others in attendance included Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen, as well as former Vice Presidents Joe Biden, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, and Dan Quayle. Two members of the Nevada delegation, Reps. Ruben Kihuen and Jacky Rosen, attended.
Earlier, an honor guard carried the 41st president’s flag-draped casket into the cathedral after a motorcade carried it from the Capitol, where Bush had lain in state since Monday afternoon.
Under gray skies, well-wishers dotted the route traveled by the hearse-led motorcade to pay tribute to the last American president to have served in World War II.
After the service, the funeral procession carried the former president’s casket and the Bush entourage to Joint Base Andrews, where the president’s plane, renamed “Special Air Mission 41” for the journey, took off bound for Houston.
Bush will lie in repose at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church before burial at his family plot on the presidential library grounds at Texas A&M University in College Station. His final resting place will be alongside Barbara Bush and Robin Bush, the daughter they lost to leukemia in 1953.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at email@example.com or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.