State funerals are high and mighty, sometimes surreal occasions, solemn and full of formality, and, contrarily, stretched to the limits of theatrical and historical high drama. For such an effect, the visually dramatic spaces of the Washington National Cathedral, the air appears rarefied, almost visible before the stained glass windows and brave arches.
This is true if you happened to remember the funerals—in person or otherwise— of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and some years later, of its legendary editor Ben Bradlee, or of Civil Rights leader Dorothy Height, ablaze with Sunday-go-to-meeting hats, or the quiet, smaller celebration of the life of political cartoonist Herblock, or of astronaut Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon or, three months earlier, of Sen. John McCain.
It is especially true for the celebration and passing of the life of United States Presidents. All the ingredients were there for the Dec. 5 state funeral of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President of the United States, shepherd of a one-term presidency of gigantic import, who lived a multi-faceted life of public service that touched critical levers of governance for the nation.
There is always a certain comforting similarity to these occasions that you watch keenly for the details—the rows of large, black vehicles delivering their cargos of family, one of whom was also a president, and attendance by four other presidents, and a swell of the mighty: international leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, mingling with cabinet secretaries, partners and wives, whether of days past or today’s power brokers. You see time and again servicemembers carrying the flag-draped coffin, the careful lifting, the small, measured and precise steps, the full-breath orders given, up the stairs, through the heavy doors and to its place before the altar.
For all this solemnity and visual allure of tradition, this funeral will be remembered not just for its lasting summation and expression of a remarkably affecting life, but for the life within the ceremonial itself. This was a funeral that often resembled an Irish wake for all the sounds of laughter, real life feelings and length.
In some ways, the various speeches—by a journalist-historian, by a former Canadian prime minister, by a former senator and close friend, by the son and former president, by a minister—proceeded in an orderly manner to reveal the full life of George H. W. Bush, late of this world, of Maine and Texas.
The recitations and reflections of Jon Meacham, the Bush biographer, included a full-circle story about the young aviator whose plane was shot down, with his rescue, and the loss of two fellow airmen in World War II. Meacham noted that Bush spent his life asking the question of “why me, and not them,” but also said that he was “an imperfect man who left us a more perfect union.”
“Leadership” is how former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney defined the 41st president. “When Bush was president of the United States of America, 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,” he said. Former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson spoke of Bush’s modesty. “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic,” he said.
Bush was often noted—not always kindly by others—for his healing, uniting and softer qualities: the thousand points of light, a kinder, softer nation, because that seemed hallmarks of his life. He set aside grudges, buried old rivalries and wrapped his arms around old rivals in friendship.
He lived literally in the bosom of a large and always growing family which acted, as they did with the Kennedys, as a kind of buffer against outrageous fortune and political loss and the lingering, lifelong grief over the loss of a young daughter.
Former president George W. Bush, who knew something of political pitfalls, centered his eulogy around love with conviction and recalled calling his father on his last day to tell him he loved him. “I love you, too,” the father replied, the last words he ever spoke. At the end of his eulogy, the son broke into tears. So did former Secretary of State James W. Baker when the story was told that he rubbed his good friend’s feet for a long time at the end.
This funeral was not shy of sentiment, or even a small amount of silent controversy. People wept, or sighed because in a cathedral you imagine you hear every breath and sigh, and talked of the lost child, how hate can be all consuming.
All four former presidents and first ladies sat in the front row. Then, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrived to sit, too, with the Obamas, Clintons and Carters. Their presence seemed to cast a pall of silence on the pew of presidents which had been noticeably animated before, turning silent as a stone pillar. The Trumps did not read or say prayers, nor did they sign, looking straight ahead. It was as if they were there, but not there.
Along the family pew in the other front row, the contrast could not have been stronger. Here the Bush children and their spouses sat, where tears could be seen, but smiles also, where Jeb and George reached out to each other, where wives and husbands held hands, and where emotions flowed freely.
As many noted, the contrast was not just about the occasion, but the times — with the speeches so full of references to truth, honesty, warmth, loyalty, accomplishments, modesty and humor, cooperation and friendship and respect, qualities that seem absent from today’s fraught political dealings.
What also emerged from the funeral was a portrait of George H. W. Bush that at various times when he was in pursuit of high office went un- or under-appreciated.
As with the lines that continued endlessly during the Bush viewing the day before, as his old friend Bob Dole came for one last salute, as people came to say goodbye, they stretched out on streets and roadways and would again in Texas. Bush’s worth rose to be seen clearly with the feeling of loss enlarged by the outburst of public affection which in the end was clearly his due.