HOUSTON – Dignity. Grace. Respect, always respect.
In the church, on the streets, lining up to view the casket, they said the same words over and over: Barbara Pierce Bush, the “first lady of the greatest generation,” as one of her eulogists called her, had the good manners of handwritten notes, decency in disagreement, the ability to apologize. Nobody’s angel, nobody’s fool. Tough and fierce, but kind and fair. And don’t forget funny as hell.
Saturday’s funeral for the wife of one president and mother of another offered the nation a deep breath, a moment of quiet reflection, a chance to savor and celebrate a family, a generation, a way of life that feels like it is increasingly slipping away.
“In hours of war and of peace, of tumult and of calm, the Bushes governed in a spirit of congeniality, of civility, and of grace,” eulogist and historian Jon Meacham told the 1,500 mourners gathered in St. Martin’s Episcopal Church on a warm and sprinkly April morning. ” . . . Barbara and George Bush put country above party, the common good above political gain, and service to others above the settling of scores.”
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Bush, who died Tuesday at 92, embodied the political establishment. She was the matriarch of a dynasty, the woman clearly in charge. Her hair went white early, and she tried dyeing it for a while, but eventually quit. She liked things real.
She commanded respect and received thousands of letters a week from admirers when she was in the White House. On Saturday, American political royalty turned out to say goodbye, including many women in royal blue dresses and strings of fake pearls, some of Bush’s trademarks.
First Lady Melania Trump. The Obamas. The Clintons. Family members of presidents Ford, Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy. (President Carter was traveling overseas, and Rosalynn Carter is recovering from surgery.) Former vice presidents Richard Cheney and Dan Quayle. Former prime ministers John Major of Britain and Brian Mulroney of Canada. Governors and cabinet secretaries and senators, generals and CIA directors.
Old school proper, like the Bushes. Some more stooped now than during the first Bush presidency, mostly grayer, some steadying themselves on canes.
George H.W. Bush, who always seemed so boyish next to his wife, is in a wheelchair and in frail health at age 93. But still, at a public viewing attended by 6,000 people on the afternoon before the funeral, he sat in front of the flower-laden casket for 20 minutes and greeted the mourners.
It’s what one does.
At the funeral, the former president sat in the front row, next to his wife’s casket that was draped in gold and white. Their daughter, Dorothy Bush Koch, better known as “Doro,” sat next to him with her arm around her father’s shoulder, gently stroking his back, turning the pages of his program for him.
“She was the gold standard of what it meant to be a friend,” said eulogist Susan Garrett Baker, wife of former secretary of state James Baker, who was George H.W. Bush’s White House chief of staff. She listed more of the words that so many used on Saturday: smart, strong, fun, feisty, selfless, compassionate, tender, firm, “a tough but loving enforcer.”
President Donald Trump stayed away to “avoid disruptions” caused by presidential security, according to a White House statement. Trump, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, tweeted that his “thoughts and prayers” were with the Bush family. That came right after a multi-tweet rant about a “third-rate” reporter, a “drunk/drugged up loser,” and a “Crooked [Hillary] flunkie.”
Trump finished a round of golf just before the service began and tweeted that he would be watching it on TV. The White House released a statement from Melania Trump calling Bush “a woman of indisputable character and grace” and a “fearless First Lady.”
Sitting presidents have often skipped funerals of former first ladies, but Trump’s absence felt more like a presence at times.
Jeb Bush, in his eulogy, didn’t mention the president who once called him “dumb as a rock.” But he spoke of how his mother was the “first and most important teacher” for her five children. She taught them to “say please and thank you,” he said, and to “be kind, always tell the truth, never disparage anyone, serve others, treat everyone as you would want to be treated.”
The mourners and the eulogists were remembering and celebrating not just a woman, but a feeling – a sense of order, grounding and civility that seems missing today.
A river of bad blood flows between Trump and the Bushes, from Trump’s repeated bashing of Jeb Bush as “low energy” to George H.W. Bush’s dismissal of Trump as a “blowhard.” And an angry Barbara Bush also rose to her son’s defense. She joined Jeb for a CNN interview during the campaign, and said she didn’t understand why anyone would vote for Trump – especially women.
“I’m sick of him,” she said, with a quick flash of anger in her eyes.
In response, Trump tweeted: “Wow, Jeb Bush, whose campaign is a total disaster, had to bring in mommy to take a slap at me. Not nice!”
When Barbara Bush lived in the White House, her husband called for a volunteer force of “a thousand points of light” to make America a “kinder, gentler nation.” Trump tweets about “flunkies” and “slimeballs” and says his behavior is “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.”
At St. Martin’s Church on Saturday, the focus was on a different kind of presidential.
Baker spoke wistfully about how Barbara Bush welcomed her family into the “Washington world” decades ago, hosting events for homeless people at the vice president’s mansion “when that wasn’t popular.”
Meacham spoke of Bush’s support for victims of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s, and her public hugging of infected children and adults at a time of public ignorance about the disease.
“The images sent a powerful message – one of compassion, of love, of acceptance,” he said.
He spoke of Bush’s strength after their 3-year-old daughter, Robin, died of leukemia in 1953.
One guest at the funeral, Rita Hajjar, who co-owns a local pizza restaurant and was dressed in a blue suit, pearls and American flag pin, called Bush, “The best first lady ever.”
“She lived in a political era that wasn’t one-sided,” said Hajjar, who named a pizza after Bush, a customer for 25 years. “She loved everybody.”
The gathering full of hugs and kisses was a reunion of old friends and colleagues. Former president George W. Bush turned and gave his familiar playful wink to old friends. He and Jeb chatted amiably during the ceremony.
Men and women who have made decisions about war and peace in this country for decades, from former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to Bush aide Brent Scowcroft and former defense secretary Robert Gates, shook hands and sang along with the choir’s soaring “Amazing Grace.”
After the prayers and the blessings ended, eight of Bush’s grandsons slowly wheeled their grandmother’s casket down the main aisle. They were followed by George H.W. Bush in his wheelchair, pushed by his president son.
As the church filled with the singing of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” mourners stepped out of their pews to catch the hand, or the glance, or any tiny bit of attention from the Bush family. The American dynasty left on the 90-mile journey to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library for a burial, and for the end of something more than a life.
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Sullivan reported from Washington.