WASHINGTON — There was a tense, awkward moment at the state funeral of former President George Herbert Walker Bush, when President Donald Trump and first lady Melania arrived at the pew where the four former presidents — and one almost – sat with their spouses, but after that, it was a celebration on Wednesday of the remarkable life of the 41st president.
Bush biographer Jon Meacham fondly remembered in his eulogy Bush’s fast pace, from speed golf to his speedboat and the self-deprecating humor for which the East Coast patrician turned Texas oilman was known.
Bush, whose children include the 43rd president, George W. Bush, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, died Friday at the age of 94 in Houston.
“On the primary campaign trail in New Hampshire once, he grabbed the hand of a department store mannequin asking for votes. When he realized his mistake,” Meacham recalled, mimicking Bush — or comic Dana Carvey — he said, ‘“Never know. Gotta ask.'” The audience laughed.
Bush, the son of Sen. Prescott Bush and born to wealth, enlisted in the Navy when he was 18 and became a pilot, deferring enrollment at Yale. Bush “was America’s last great soldier-statesman,” said Meacham in his eulogy. “….He stood in the breach in Washington against unthinking partisanship,” Meacham said.
Whether or not you take some remarks from Meacham and others at the Bush funeral as a jab at Trump likely depends on where you stand on the matter of how destructive you think Trump is when it comes to his tearing down the norms of our democratic institutions. Paying tribute to Bush is not rebuking Trump; rather it is making obvious the differences between Bush and the present occupant of the Oval Office.
The funeral was at the magnificent National Cathedral, an inspiring combination of orchestrated formal military and Episcopal religious ritual, from the moment the hearse arrived at the gothic masterpiece and the casket was removed to “Hail to the Chief.”
The invited attendees included Trump and first lady Melania; Barack and Michelle Obama; Bill and Hillary Clinton; and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.
This group has not been together since Trump’s inauguration. The Trumps were not invited to the Sept. 1 funeral of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at the National Cathedral. Bush wanted Trump at his funeral.
When Trump and Melania got to the pew, the Obamas, Clintons and Carters were already in place. Melania shook hands with the Obamas, who were seated next to them. After sitting down, Trump leaned over and shook hands with Obama and Michelle — who tore into Trump in her new memoir, “Becoming,” for his birther lies.
Trump, still trying to lock up his 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, did not try to shake hands with the Clintons. Bill threw Trump a glance; otherwise, the Clintons did not acknowledge him, staring straight ahead. The Carters likewise were disinterested in Trump.
After George W. Bush and his family were seated, he came over and worked the presidential row, greeting all the members of the world’s most exclusive club.
Granddaughters Lauren Bush Lauren and Ashley Walker Bush read from Isaiah; another granddaughter, Jenna Bush Hager, quoted Revelation, followed by eulogies from Meacham; former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney; former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wy., with the final tribute from George W. Bush.
Trump could only suffer from the implicit comparisons offered by Mulroney and Simpson.
Mulroney spoke about how Bush got the ball rolling for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was finalized under Clinton. Trump has made a priority of ending NAFTA, renouncing the name of the pact with Canada and Mexico.
Mulroney would have none of that, referring to NAFTA as not killed but “recently modernized and improved by new administrations — which created the largest and richest free trade area in the history of the world.”
Simpson, well known for his wit, did not disappoint.
“Relax, George told me I only had ten minutes,” Simpson quipped as he started his tribute.
Speaking about Bush’s humility, Simpson said, “He knew what his mother and my mother always knew: Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”
George W. Bush summed up the father of an American political dynasty.
Said Bush, “Dad could relate to people from all walks of life. He was an empathetic man. He valued character over pedigree. And he was no cynic. He looked for the good in each person — and usually found it.”
Footnote: Among the dignitaries filling the massive sanctuary in the iconic cathedral — the second largest in the U.S. — were members of Congress; the Supreme Court; current and former vice presidents; Prince Charles; German Chancellor Angela Merkel and members of the Bush 41 and 43 administrations. Plus, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner; Chicago mayoral contender and former Obama Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Illinois House Republicans Adam Kinzinger, Peter Roskam and Randy Hultgren.