The nation’s capital embraced George H.W. Bush in death Monday with solemn ceremony and high tributes to his service and decency, as the remains of the 41st president took their place in the Capitol rotunda for three days of mourning and praise by the political elite and everyday citizens alike.
With Bush’s casket atop the Lincoln Catafalque, first used for Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 funeral, dignitaries came forward to honor the Texan whose efforts for his country extended three quarters of a century from World War II through his final years as an advocate for volunteerism and relief for people displaced by natural disaster.
President from 1989 to 1993, Bush died Friday at age 94.
In an invocation opening Monday evening’s ceremony, the U.S. House chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J Conroy, praised Bush’s commitment to public service, from Navy pilot to congressman, U.N. ambassador, envoy to China and then CIA director before being elected vice president and then president.
“Here lies a great man,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, and “a gentle soul. … His legacy is grace perfected.”
Vice President Mike Pence and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell also spoke. President Donald Trump did not attend, but he and first lady Melania Trump came to the Capitol later Monday to pay tribute. They stood in front of the casket with their eyes closed for a few moments, before Trump saluted the casket.
Political combatants set aside their fights to honor a Republican who led in a less toxic era and at times found commonality with Democrats despite sharp policy disagreements. Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, past and incoming House speaker, exchanged a warm hug with George W. Bush and came away dabbing her face. Bush himself seemed to be holding back tears.
Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, placed wreaths in the short ceremony before the rotunda was to be opened to the public. It was to remain open overnight.
Sent off from Texas with a 21-gun salute, Bush’s casket was carried to Joint Base Andrews outside the capital city aboard an aircraft that often serves as Air Force One and designated “Special Air Mission 41” in honor of Bush’s place on the chronological list of presidents.
Cannon roared again outside the Capitol as the sun sank and his eldest son, former President George W. Bush, stood with his hand over his heart, watching the casket’s procession up the steps.
Bush was remembered just feet away from what he called “Democracy’s front porch,” the west-facing steps of the Capitol where he was sworn in as president.
He will lie in state in the Capitol for public visitation through Wednesday. An invitation-only funeral service, which the Trumps will attend, is set for Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral.
Although Bush’s funeral services are suffused with the flourishes accorded presidents, by his choice they will not include a formal funeral procession through downtown Washington.
The younger President Bush, his wife, Laura, and others from the family traveled on the flight from Houston.
On Sunday, students, staff and visitors had flocked to Bush’s presidential library on the campus of Texas A&M University, with thousands of mourners paying their respects at a weekend candlelight vigil at a nearby pond and others contributing to growing flower memorials at Bush statues at both the library and a park in downtown Houston.
“I think he was one of the kindest, most generous men,” said Marge Frazier, who visited the downtown statue on Sunday while showing friends from California around.
After services in Washington, Bush will be returned to Houston to lie in repose in church before burial Thursday at his family plot on the library grounds. His final resting place will be alongside Barbara Bush, his wife of 73 years who died in April, and Robin Bush, the daughter they lost to leukemia in 1953 at age 3.
Trump has ordered the federal government closed Wednesday for a national day of mourning. Flags on public buildings are flying at half-staff for 30 days out of respect for Bush.
Trump, who has not always uttered kind words about the Bush family, offered nothing but praise in the hours after the former president’s death was announced.
“He was just a high-quality man who truly loved his family,” Trump said Saturday while in Argentina. “One thing that came through loud and clear, he was very proud of his family and very much loved his family. So he was a terrific guy and he’ll be missed.”
Bush’s passing puts him back in the Washington spotlight after more than two decades living the relatively low-key life of a former president. His death also reduces membership in the ex-presidents’ club to four: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.