HOUSTON — George H.W. Bush’s family and friends praised his faith, humility and patience Thursday, saying the former president embodied courage and grace along with his unique brand of humor and kindness as days of national mourning in Washington took on a more personal feel during a final Texas farewell.
Addressing a funeral at Houston’s St. Martin’s Episcopal Church where the 41st president and his family regularly worshipped, Bush’s former secretary of state and confidant for decades, James Baker, addressed him as “jefe,” Spanish for “boss.” He praised Bush as a “truly beautiful human being” who had the “courage of a warrior but the greater courage of a peacemaker.”
“The world became a better place because George Bush occupied the White House for four years,” said Baker, who concluded his remarks fighting back tears.
Following the services, a special funeral train was carrying Bush’s remains through small towns to the family plot on the presidential library grounds at Texas A&M University in College Station. His final resting place is alongside his wife and Robin Bush, the daughter they lost to leukemia at age 3.
Thursday’s flavor was distinctly Texas. In place of most Washington dignitaries were top Houston athletes including the NFL Texans’ defensive end J.J. Watt — displaying Bush’s love for sports — and Chuck Norris, who played TV’s “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
The St. Martin’s Parish Choir performed “This is My Country,” which was also sung at Bush’s presidential inauguration in 1989. Those gathered also heard a prayer stressing the importance of service and selflessness that the president himself offered for the country at the start of his term.
President Donald Trump wasn’t in attendance Thursday, but Baker seemed to draw a gentle contrast by saying Bush respected vanquished adversaries. He said that Bush’s wish for a “kinder, gentler nation” was genuine, not cynical.
There were rousing renditions of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Onward Christian Soldiers,” but also many of Bush’s country favorites. The Oak Ridge Boys recalled performing for him for decades and joked that Bush “fancied himself to be a good bass singer. He was not.” They then sang “Amazing Grace” and Reba McEntire offered a musical version of “The Lord’s Prayer.”
The previous evening, more than 11,000 people paid their respects as his casket that lay in repose in Houston all night.
George P. Bush, the former president’s grandson and the only member of the political dynasty still holding elected office, as Texas land commissioner, subsequently struck a more personal tone in his eulogy of the man he and the younger generations called “gampy.”
“He left a simple, yet profound legacy to his children, to his grandchildren and to his country: service,” George P. Bush said.
The church’s pastor, Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., recalled the Bushes regularly attending services there and offering to give up their seats to others on days when the church was particularly crowded.
“He was ready for heaven and heaven was ready for him,” Levenson said of Bush’s declining in health in recent years. He also suggested that when Bush died, he would meet his wife of 73 years, Barbara, in heaven and she would playfully demand “What took you so long?”
Indeed, the funeral occurred at the same church where services were held in April for Barbara Bush, which was remembered for an emotional scene when the former president gazed from his wheelchair up at her casket, then shook hands with well-wishers.
At Wednesday’s Washington funeral service at the National Cathedral, there was high praise for the last of the presidents to have fought in World War II — and a hefty dose of humor about a man whose speaking delivery was once described as a cross between Mister Rogers and John Wayne. Three former presidents and Trump watched George W. Bush eulogized his father as “the brightest of a thousand points of light.”
The cathedral service was a tribute to the patriarch of one of the nation’s most-powerful political families — it occupied the White House for a dozen years —and to a faded political era that prized military service and public responsibility. Like Baker’s address Thursday, it was laced with indirect comparisons to Trump but was not consumed by them, as speakers focused on Bush’s public life and character — with plenty of cracks about his goofy side, too.
“He was a man of such great humility,” said Alan Simpson, former Republican senator from Wyoming. Those who travel “the high road of humility in Washington, D.C.,” he added pointedly, “are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
Trump sat Wednesday with his wife, a trio of ex-presidents and their wives, several of them sharp critics of his presidency and one of them, Hillary Clinton, his 2016 Democratic foe. Apart from courteous nods and some handshakes, there was little interaction between Trump and the others.
George W. Bush broke down briefly at the end of his eulogy while invoking the daughter his parents lost in 1953 and his mother, who died in April. He took comfort in knowing “Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom’s hand again.”
Bush’s death makes Carter, also 94 but more than 100 days younger, the oldest living ex-president.