Washington sets aside divisions for Bush funeral

Thursday, December 06, 2018

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WASHINGTON, United States (AFP) — A divided Washington led by the nation's five living presidents put on a show of unity yesterday at the poignant state funeral of George HW Bush, as America bade farewell to its 41st president.

Donald and Melania Trump shared a front row pew in the National Cathedral with past presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and their wives as an honour guard brought Bush's flag-draped casket into the packed prayer hall.

George W Bush, the 43rd president, delivered a rousing and intimate eulogy — at times punctuated by laughter — as he sang the praises of his father and predecessor as commander-in-chief, who died Friday at age 94.

“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,” Bush said.

“He was born with just two settings — full throttle, then sleep.

“To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light,” he said in a reference to his father''s signature call to volunteerism.

“When the history books are written, they will say that George HW Bush was a great president of the United States.”

Bush's eulogy followed an uplifting performance by Irish tenor Ronan Tynan — a friend of HW who sang to him in his dying hours.

Yesterday's funeral capped a national homage that saw Bush lie in state in the US Capitol rotunda, where tens of thousands quietly filed in to pay respects to a man who steered the nation through turbulent times including the end of the Cold War — and in a style dramatically different to the combative current president.

Since Bush's death, Trump has traded his usual provocative posture for one of respect and solemnity, tweeting before heading to the cathedral about “a day of celebration for a great man”.

But while the service allowed Washington to hit pause on the toxic rhetoric consuming the country's politics, Trump and his Democratic predecessors appeared locked in an uneasy truce as it got under way.

Trump arrived and shook hands with Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama. But his greetings stopped there, as he failed to acknowledge Hillary Clinton, his defeated Democratic rival in 2016.

Clinton sat stone-faced, looking straight ahead, and the two made no eye contact.

Other attending dignitaries included Britain's Prince Charles, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Polish President Lech Walesa, and former US vice-presidents and cabinet officials.

Yesterday was a day of precision, patriotic ritual, and ceremony. Members of the Bush clan and top lawmakers stood outside the US Capitol as an honour guard carried Bush's flag-draped casket to the hearse.

Pennsylvania Avenue was lined with well-wishers as the cortege proceeded toward the Neo-Gothic cathedral in the first presidential funeral since Gerald Ford died in late 2006.

Bush was a decorated World War II aviator who nearly lost his life when he was shot down on a bombing mission.

He served as a congressman, envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and vice-president to Ronald Reagan before winning the White House.

Trump's ascendancy to the head of the Republican Party saw him exchange vitriolic attacks with the Bushes, notably slamming the presidential son's 2003 invasion of Iraq as “one of the worst decisions in the history of our country”.

But Trump had taken pains to demonstrate unity since Bush's death, and declared yesterday a national day of mourning with many federal offices closed and Congress suspending votes.

At a time of political fissures, admirers of the 41st US president looked to him this week as a dedicated servant of country who aimed to bridge the political divide.

“His life code, as he said, was tell the truth, don't blame people, be strong, do your best, try hard, forgive, stay the course,” presidential historian Jon Meacham told yesterday's service.

Afterwards, Bush's casket was driven to Joint Base Andrews, where the presidential aircraft lifted off carrying him on his final journey from Washington back to Houston.

He will lie in repose at St Martin's Episcopal Church, where the Bushes worshipped for decades, until he is buried tomorrow.

Delivering the funeral homily, the church's Reverend Russell Levenson noted how some have described Bush's passing as the end of an era marked by common decency and respect.

“It does not have to be,” he said. “Perhaps it's an invitation to fill the hole that has been left behind.”

Bush will be interred at his presidential library in College Station, Texas, next to his wife, who died in April, and their daughter Robin who died of leukemia at age three.

“In our grief, let us smile knowing that Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom's hand again,” said his son George, through tears.

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