WASHINGTON: A divided Washington led by the nation’s five living presidents put on a rare show of unity Wednesday at the state funeral of George Herbert Walker Bush, as America bade farewell to its 41st president.
Donald and Melania Trump shared a front row pew in the National Cathedral with past presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and their wives as an honour guard brought Bush’s flag-draped casket into the prayer hall filled with dignitaries.
George W Bush tapped the casket twice when he walked up to deliver a rousing eulogy, fighting through tears as he sang the praises of his father and predecessor as commander-in-chief, who died Friday at age 94.
“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.
“He was born with just two settings – full throttle, then sleep,” he said. “To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light,” he said in a reference to his father’s signature call to volunteerism.
“When the history books are written, they will say that George H.W. Bush was a great president of the United States.”
Bush’s eulogy followed a performance by Irish tenor Ronan Tynan – a friend of HW who sang to him in his dying hours.
Wednesday’s funeral capped a national homage that saw Bush lie in state in the US Capitol rotunda, where thousands paid respects to a statesman who steered the nation through turbulent times including the end of the Cold War – and in a style dramatically different to the current president.
Since Bush’s death, Trump has traded his usual provocative posture for one of solemnity, tweeting before the service about “a day of celebration for a great man.”
But at the funeral, Trump and his Democratic predecessors appeared locked in an uneasy truce.
Trump arrived and shook hands with Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama.
But his greetings stopped there, and the body language turned cold as he failed to acknowledge Hillary Clinton, his defeated Democratic rival in 2016.
Clinton stared straight ahead and the two made no eye contact.
It was a dramatic contrast when George W Bush arrived minutes later and shook hands with the current and past presidents and their wives – and handed Michelle Obama a piece of candy, as he did during the memorial service for senator John McCain in the same cathedral in September.
Bells tolled while the casket was carried down the aisle, as dignitaries including Britain’s Prince Charles, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Polish president Lech Walesa, and former US vice-presidents and cabinet officials looked on.
Precision, patriotic ritual, and ceremony ruled the day. The Bushes and congressional leaders stood outside the US Capitol with hands on hearts as Bush’s casket was carried out to a 21-gun salute.
Pennsylvania Avenue was lined with well-wishers as the cortege proceeded toward the Neo-Gothic cathedral in the first presidential funeral since Gerald Ford died in 2006.
‘Stay the course’
Bush was a decorated World War II aviator who nearly died when he was shot down on a bombing mission.
He served as a congressman, envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and vice president to Ronald Reagan before winning the White House.
Trump’s ascendancy to the head of the Republican Party saw him exchange vitriolic attacks with the Bushes, notably slamming the presidential son’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and mocking candidate Jeb Bush during the Republican primaries.
Bush Sr meanwhile branded Trump a “blowhard,” and revealed he did not vote for him.
At a time of political fissures, admirers of the 41st US president looked to him this week as a dedicated servant of country who aimed to do good and bridge political divides.
“His life code, as he said, was tell the truth, don’t blame people, be strong, do your best, try hard, forgive, stay the course,” presidential historian Jon Meacham told Wednesday’s service.
Afterwards, the presidential aircraft carried Bush and family on his final journey from Washington back to Texas, touching down in Houston at 5pm (2300 GMT).
He will lie in repose at St Martin’s Episcopal Church, where the Bushes worshipped for decades, until he is buried Thursday.
Bush will be interred at his presidential library in College Station, Texas, next to his wife, who died in April, and their daughter Robin who died of leukaemia at age three.
“In our grief,” his son George said, “let us smile knowing that Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom’s hand again.”