Former President George W. Bush choked back tears eulogizing “the best father a son or daughter could have” as official Washington turned out Wednesday to honor the late President George H.W. Bush with the full pageantry of a state funeral.
Bush paused and tapped his father’s flag-draped casket twice as he walked up to the altar at Washington National Cathedral to offer a personal remembrance of the 41st president. He called his father a political leader of unrelenting optimism and steadfast personal character.
“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,” Bush said.
President Donald Trump listened from the front pew with his arms crossed, seated beside his three Democratic predecessors and their wives. He wasn’t invited to speak.
Presidential historian and Bush biographer Jon Meacham, another eulogist at the service, called George H.W. Bush “America’s last great soldier-statesman,” a World War II hero who, after being shot down over the Pacific at the age of 20 and rescued from the sea, spent the rest of his life proving himself worthy of salvation.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who also spoke, said that when Bush was in the White House “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.”
Trump, who was joined by his wife Melania, shook hands with Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama as he entered the service but didn’t greet Bill and Hillary Clinton or Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. George W. Bush, who sat across the aisle with his family, paused and greeted Trump and all the former presidents. He drew a small item from his pocket and handed it to Michelle Obama, who smiled.
“Looking forward to being with the Bush family,” Trump tweeted shortly before the service. “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!”
Left unsaid were the years of criticism and attacks the president has leveled against the Bush family, as well as the Bush family’s at times barely disguised contempt for Trump, whose approach to leadership runs at odds with the “kinder, gentler” conservatism the late president espoused.
It was the first time Trump was in close proximity to the Obamas and the Clintons since his inauguration nearly two years ago. He has since repeatedly attacked both former first couples on Twitter and at political rallies.
Trump wasn’t welcome at the last two occasions that brought former presidents together. Former first lady Barbara Bush, who died earlier this year, made clear she didn’t want the president at her funeral. He also wasn’t invited to the funeral for Republican Senator John McCain, who died in August.
Trump’s disparagement of the Bush family and its governance is voluminous.
As recently as July, at a campaign rally in Montana, Trump mocked one of President H.W. Bush’s signature phrases. “Thousand points of light, what the hell is that?” he asked the crowd. “Has anyone ever figured that one out?”
At a 2016 primary debate, Trump criticized George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in an attack on his brother Jeb, who challenged Trump for the nomination. “ George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty,” Trump said.
Decades earlier, while the elder Bush was in office, Trump hit at a fundamental difference between them: “I like George Bush very much and support him and always will. But I disagree with him when he talks of a kinder, gentler America. I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist,” Trump told Playboy in 1990.
The disdain was reciprocated.
According Meacham, Trump told Bush adviser Lee Atwater in 1988 that he’d be available to be Bush’s running mate. Bush “thought the overture ‘strange and unbelievable,’” Meacham wrote.
In 2011, when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd mentioned Trump’s birther campaign against Obama to the elder Bush, Bush responded: “He’s an ass.”
With the country — and the world — watching, the president and the Bush family are staging a public detente that belies their history. Whatever his feelings about the former presidents, Trump dutifully swallowed them this week. He has behaved in presidential fashion by declaring Wednesday to be a national day of mourning during which the federal government is closed, giving most federal employees have the day off, and traveling to the Capitol Monday evening to silently pay his respects at the late president’s casket.
Trump invited former President George W. Bush and his family to stay at Blair House, the official guest residence across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, and crossed the street on Tuesday to pay them a visit. Melania Trump gave former First Lady Laura Bush a tour of the White House Christmas decorations on Tuesday.
“What people want to talk about is, ‘Well, why isn’t the president giving the eulogy?’” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush — whom Trump famously derided during the 2016 Republican primary as “low energy” — said Tuesday, hinting at the tension and defusing it with a joke.
“It’s because we have a unique circumstance here; my brother was president. First dibs, as we used to say,” Bush said.
Jeb Bush, speaking at a Wall Street Journal event in Washington, added that Trump “couldn’t have been nicer” in his condolence calls to him and to George W. Bush.