George HW Bush's funeral delivers message of civility in an era of bitter division

Ben Riley-Smith
George W Bush touches the casket of his father George H W Bush during a funeral ceremony - Getty Images North America

George HW Bush, the former US president, was remembered as a "noble" man of “great humility” on Wednesday at a state funeral attended by much of America’s political establishment.

Emotional eulogies from his son and friends remembered the 41st president as a “class act” who dedicated his life to public service and embodied courage, both political and personal.   

In a service dominated by the messages of unity and patriotism, speakers praised Mr Bush’s opposition to “unthinking partisanship” and awareness that “hatred corrodes”. 

Jon Meacham, a presidential historian, summed up Mr Bush’s approach to life as “tell the truth, don’t blame people, be strong, do your best, try hard, forgive, stay the course”.

The messages were interpreted as a call for civility in politics at a time when the country is bitterly divided along party lines.

Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and their wives sit together for George H W Bush's funeral Credit: ALEX BRANDON/AFP

Donald Trump, the current US president, joined three of his predecessors – Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter – and their wives on the front row of Washington DC’s National Cathedral to commemorate Mr Bush’s life. 

Mr Trump and Melania Trump, his wife, shook hands with the Obamas despite their well-documented public clashes and were seated next to each other – a sign of the bipartisanship that resonated throughout the service. 

They were joined by many of the most famous faces in recent American political life from both sides of the aisle, including Mike Pence and Joe Biden, the current and former vice presidents, and members of Mr Trump’s cabinet. 

From Britain, Prince Charles attended to represent the Queen, while Sir John Major, whose premiership overlapped with Mr Bush’s time in office, and Sir Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador to the USA, were also present.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was among other foreign dignitaries paying their respects. 

There was a fifth US president also present, of course – George W Bush, the son of Mr Bush who matched his father by reaching the White House and even did one better, winning a second time. 

On his way to the lectern, the younger Mr Bush appeared to slip Mrs Obama a cough sweet, as he had done at the funeral of John McCain - to much online delight

During a heartfelt eulogy, Mr Bush reflected on what his father, who died aged 94 on Friday, had taught him about holding America’s top political office. 

“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,” Mr Bush said.

“When the history books are written, they will say that George H W Bush was a great president of the United States, a diplomat of unmatched skill, a commander-in-chief of formidable accomplishment, and a gentleman who executed the duties of his office with dignity and honour.”

Former US President George W. Bush speaks at the State Funeral for his father, former US President George H W Bush Credit: ALEX BRANDON/AFP

At one point Mr Bush choked back tears as he praised “the best father a son or daughter can have”, adding that the elder Mr Bush now would be reunited with his wife, Barbara, and the daughter, Robin, who they lost aged just three. 

There was humour, too. Mr Bush recalled how in later life his father would watch cop show reruns on television with the volume turned up and ride his speed boat so fast that secret service agents struggled to keep up. 

He bemoaned his father's dislike of broccoli and struggles at chipping on the golf course. And he recalled that in hospital the elder Mr Bush would take “great delight” in having a friend smuggle a bottle of Grey Goose vodka into his room to drink with his steak. 

Summing up his father’s outlook, Mr Bush said: “In victory, he shared credit. When he lost, he shouldered the blame. He accepted that failure is a part of living a full life, but taught us never to be defined by failure. He showed us how setbacks can strengthen.” 

That message was echoed by the three others who gave eulogies – Mr Meacham, who revealed he had read his speech to Mr Bush before he passed away, Brian Mulroney, the former Canadian prime minister, Alan Simpson, a former US senator. 

They recalled Mr Bush’s lifetime of service, from a two-time Texas congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and envoy to China, CIA director, vice president to Ronald Reagan and eventually to president himself, between 1989 and 1993. 

Mr Meacham described how a crash as a young pilot in the Second World War – Mr Bush was the last US president to have fought in the war – which he survived but left others on board dead was a turning point. 

The flag-draped casket of former US President George H W Bush arrives carried by a military honor guard during a State Funeral at the National Cathedral  Credit: ANDREW HARNIK/AFP

“In a sense the rest of his life was a perennial effort to prove himself worthy of his salvation on that distant morning,” Mr Meacham said, noting that Mr Bush thought about the incident almost daily. 

“To him, his life was no longer his own. There were always more missions to undertake, more lives to touch and more love to give.” 

Mr Mulroney, who was in power at the same time as Mr Bush, noted the former president’s success in helping to ensure the Cold War ended peacefully and Germany was reunified. 

“I believe it will be said that no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled or more honorable than George Herbert Walker Bush,” Mr Mulroney. 

Mr Simpson, an old friend, joked about how Mr Bush’s back-tracking on the campaign promise “read my lips: no new taxes” when in office ultimately undermined his chances of re-election, but insisted that it said something of his approach to public life.

“He often said ‘when the really tough choices come, it’s the country, not me. It’s not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s for our country that I fought for’,” Mr Simpson said. 

“He was a man of such great humility,” Mr Simpson added, noting with a line that drew laughter: “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington DC are not bothered by heavy traffic.”

Mr Bush’s casket had earlier in the day been processed out of the US Capitol, where it had been lying in state, and was greeted with a 21-gun salute before being driven past to the White House and on to the National Cathedral. 

On Wednesday evening the casket was in Texas, the state that became Mr Bush’s home. A second funeral will be held there on Thursday, before burial alongside his wife Barbara and daughter Robin at a family plot.