WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The funeral of President George H.W. Bush got underway on Wednesday, with U.S. and foreign dignitaries gathered to commemorate the life of a World War Two hero, Cold War veteran and former head of the CIA who went on to represent an era of civility in American politics.
An unusual bipartisan spirit was on display at the service at the Washington National Cathedral with both Republican and Democratic politicians gathering to honor a president who called for a “kinder, gentler” nation.
Bush, the 41st U.S. president, died last week in Texas aged 94.
“George H.W. Bush was America’s last great soldier-statesman,” Jon Meacham, a presidential biographer, said in a eulogy. “He stood in the breach in the Cold War against totalitarianism. He stood in the breach in Washington against unthinking partisanship,” he said.
Political feuds were briefly set aside in honor of the late president, a naval aviator who was shot down over the Pacific Ocean in World War Two, and a commander in chief who defeated Iraqi forces in the 1991 Gulf War.
Trump shook hands with his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, who he has often sharply criticized, as he took his seat at the cathedral.
Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 election opponent, and her husband Bill Clinton shared the front pew with Obama, Trump and their spouses.
Trump, like Bush a Republican, infuriated the late president by attacking his sons, former President George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, one of Trump’s rivals in the 2016 Republican primary campaign.
Bush, who was president from 1989 to 1993, has been remembered as a patrician figure who represented a bygone era of civility in American politics.
He was voted out of office in part for failing to connect with ordinary Americans during an economic recession. But his reputation for moderation and politeness has shone more brightly in recent years in light of the divisiveness and anger in the United States that accompanied the rise of Trump.
TRUMP AT SERVICE
“Looking forward to being with the Bush family. This is not a funeral, this is a day of celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life. He will be missed!” Trump tweeted on Wednesday.
The Trumps spent about 20 minutes visiting with the Bush family on Tuesday.
Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, told the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council on Tuesday: “The president and first lady have been really gracious.”
All surviving former U.S. presidents were at the cathedral along with their wives.
George W. Bush was also to deliver a eulogy, along with former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and retired Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson.
The guest list included Britain’s Prince Charles and leaders of Germany, Jordan, Australia and Poland, along with a host of former world leaders, such as former British Prime Minister John Major, who was in office during Bush’s term.
Trump closed the federal government on Wednesday to mark a day of mourning for Bush, and several U.S. financial exchanges were closed.
Bush, who had been President Ronald Reagan’s vice president, navigated the United States through the end of the Cold War and was president when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
He was dogged by domestic problems, including a sluggish
economy, and faced criticism for not doing enough to stem the tens of thousands of deaths from the AIDS virus ravaging America.
When he ran for re-election in 1992, he was pilloried by Democrats and many Republicans for violating his famous 1988 campaign promise: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Democrat Bill Clinton coasted to victory.
Hundreds of people lined Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington to watch a hearse drive Bush’s coffin from Capitol Hill, where he had lain in state since Monday night, toward the cathedral on Wednesday morning.
Thousands of people had filed past Bush’s body to pay their respects in the Capitol Rotunda, some getting a chance to see Sully, a service dog who was Bush’s friendly companion. Sully became an internet sensation after being photographed lying next to his late master’s coffin.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frances Kerry