The ceremony for the late president began at the Capitol as the sun set. A military guard carried his American-flag-draped casket into the Rotunda, where current and former lawmakers, Cabinet officials, Supreme Court justices, and his family stood waiting.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered the opening eulogy for George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, three days after he had died at his home in Houston. “We stand with you in mourning, but also in gratitude,” McConnell said. “Gratitude for lives well lived and duties thoroughly fulfilled. Gratitude that God gave this country George and Barbara Bush, and that they may now be reunited in the light of His grace.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan echoed the theme of grace. Grace “is the stuff of life—the connective tissue in a free society. It deepens the well of our common humanity,” Ryan said. “Throughout his life of service, President Bush personified grace. His character was second to none.”
President Donald Trump surprised many on Capitol Hill when he reserved only kind thoughts for Bush, who died at 94.
Trump had vented his frustrations earlier in the day in tweets about his erstwhile personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who has now turned against him, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the man leading the probe into Trump’s 2016 campaign and possible collusion with Russia. Cohen was up to “TERRIBLE” things, Trump tweeted, and Mueller was “a much different man than people think.” He accused the former FBI director and “his out of control band of Angry Democrats” of preferring “lies” to “truth.”
But when it came to President Bush, Trump’s tweets were respectful and presidential. “Looking forward to being with the Bush Family to pay my respects to President George H.W. Bush,” he wrote.
Immediately following Bush’s death, he and the first lady, Melania Trump, lauded the 41st president as a leader of “unwavering commitment to faith, family, and country.”
“Our hearts ache with his loss.”
It was a glimpse of grace in an era that has consistently promised anything but, made all the more poignant by the weary truth that as soon as tomorrow, with new irritations to air and new tweets to tweet, it would be gone.
Perhaps in another time this fact might not be exceptional—that the president of the United States had not insulted the life of a former commander in chief and war hero as it came to an end. But just over three months ago, Trump showed his willingness to take his grievances and hold his grudges against his critics even after they had passed, refusing to honor the late Senator John McCain as the rest of the nation mourned.
Like McCain, Bush openly criticized Trump as he rose the ranks of the party. In 2016, he called the then-candidate a “blowhard” and confirmed that he voted for Hillary Clinton. It was the crunch of the apple, the kind of offense that has sent many fellow Republicans to Trump’s blacklist. One would be forgiven for assuming, as the president rattled off a fresh list of personae non grata today, that the elder Bush wasn’t far off. But Trump held his tongue and his tweets in honor of the moment, presumably, if not in honor of the great man himself.
During the ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence recalled a note Bush had sent to his son, Michael Pence, a first lieutenant in the Marines. Pence’s son had achieved his first tailhook landing on an aircraft carrier named after Bush. He asked the former president to sign a picture of the flight deck, and Bush, once the youngest naval aviator in service, sent back the photo, as well as a letter. “Though we have not met, I share the pride your father has for you during this momentous occasion,” Bush wrote. “And I wish you many CAVU days ahead.” (CAVU stands for Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited, a phrase used by Navy pilots to describe the ideal weather when taking off.)
“President Bush was a great leader who made a great difference in the life of this nation,” Pence added. “But he was also just a good man.”
Altogether, the event was somber, respectful, a collection of moments sealed off from the political turmoil to which Americans have become accustomed. Visitors lingered for hours after to pay their respects. It was as though they’d found the eye of a hurricane, and were, naturally, in no rush to leave it.