The life and service of George H.W. Bush, the nation’s 41st President, were lauded Wednesday during a solemn and sentimental ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral.
Bush’s eldest son, former President George W. Bush, was joined by four fellow living Presidents as well as dignitaries and heads of state from across the globe in celebrating the life of his father, a former commander-in-chief, World War II veteran and CIA director.
“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-chef of formidable accomplishment and a gentleman who executed the duties of his office with dignity and honor,” the younger Bush said.
The moving national funeral service in the cavernous cathedral followed three days of remembrance in Washington before Bush’s remains return to Texas for his burial Thursday. The former statesman died Friday in Houston. He was 94.
Earlier Wednesday, the Bush clan gathered in front of the Capitol as a flag-draped coffin carrying the family’s patriarch was carried to a waiting hearse with a military band playing “Hail to the Chief” in the background.
Four of the President’s five living children, including his namesake son, former Florida governor Jeb Bush of Florida, Doro Bush Koch and Neil Bush, along with their spouses, stood watch as their father left the Capitol Building after lying in state since Monday.
Thousands packed into the pews of the National Cathedral, including world leaders, lawmakers and friends and family who gathered to honor the late President.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prince Charles, former NFL star Peyton Manning and golf pro Phil Michelson paid their respects.
Former Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter sat side-by-side with their spouses in the front row.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump joined the group shortly before the service began, shaking hands with Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama.
It was the first time Trump has been with the previous Presidents since his inauguration nearly two years ago.
Trump, a prominent proponent of the conspiracy theory that Obama is not a U.S.-born citizen, has broken with tradition and openly criticized his predecessors. He also continues to call for investigations into former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent in 2016, who was seated only four seats away from him Wednesday.
The President has fostered a tense and contentious relationship with the Bush family. At a political rally over the summer, Trump blasted the elder Bush for his “thousand points of light” call to volunteerism. He has also challenged the legacy of George W. Bush and openly mocked “low-energy” Jeb Bush during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. The late Bush in turn labeled Trump a “blowhard.”
Trump tweeted Wednesday that the day marked “a celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life.”
Presidential historian Jon Meacham delivered the first remarks about Bush, calling him “an imperfect man” who “left us a more perfect union.”
Bush, a Navy pilot who survived a mission after his plane went down over the Pacific and an earlier crash landing, was “the last great-soldier statesman,” Meacham added, “our shield” in dangerous times.
Meachum also noted Bush’s sense of humor. Campaigning in a crowd in a department store, Bush once shook hands with a mannequin, Meachum recalled. “Never know. Gotta ask,” Bush quipped.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Alan Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming, both spoke of their long friendships with Bush and expounded on his relationship with his wife of 73 years, Barbara, who passed away in April.
Simpson called Bush “the most decent and honorable person” he ever met.
“None of us were ready for this day. We mourn his loss from our own lives and what he was to each of us,” he said.
George W. Bush ended his eulogy with a tearful toast to his dad’s legacy as a family man.
“Your decency, sincerity and kind soul will stay with us forever,” he said of his father. “So through our tears, let us know the blessings of knowing and loving you, a great and noble man. The best father a son or daughter could have.”
A day earlier, thousands made their way through the Capitol Rotunda to view Bush’s casket and honor a President whose legacy spanned decades of service, including his military service, work atop the Central Intelligence Agency and the passage of a landmark law affirming the rights of the disabled.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, a one-time political rival and fellow war hero, steadied himself out of his wheelchair and saluted his old friend. Bush’s service dog, Sully, was also taken to the viewing.
Trump declared Wednesday as a national day of mourning, meaning most nonessential federal employees will be given the day off, stock markets and post offices will be closed.