How do you take a man — a 94-year-old man, a man who spent his life in service of his country, enlisting in the military at 18 years old to serve in World War II, where his plane was shot down and he barely escaped capture, a man who went on to become a congressman, an ambassador to China, a CIA director, a vice president and the 41st President of the United States — and sum up his life in a 90-minute memorial?
George Herbert Walker Bush had a plan, and it was wild enough to work.
Before his death Friday, Bush handpicked the speakers who would deliver eulogies at his memorial, which was held Wednesday at the Washington National Cathedral. He would, of course, have his son, George W. Bush, also a former president, speak. But then Bush picked three unusual men to fill out the card: A former, and often cantankerous, senator from Wyoming; a presidential historian who had been, at times, a frank critic; and of course, a former prime minister of Canada (who else?).
The foursome made a perfect, if odd, group to remember America’s last president of the Greatest Generation, a man who had literally done it all.
Historian Jon Meacham, author of a 2015 biography of Bush, took the podium first in the ornate cathedral, laying out the life of the 41st president, whom he called “America’s last great soldier statesman, a 20th century founding father.”
“Politics isn’t a pure undertaking — not if you want to win it’s not,” Meacham said, drawing a grin and a knowing nod from George W. Bush. But Bush the elder rose above all that. “Strong and gracious, comforting and charming, loving and loyal, he was our shield in danger’s hour,” Meacham said.
And Meacham told wonderful stories about Bush, saying that once, on a campaign stop in New Hampshire, the young candidate had tried to shake the hand of a mannequin at a department store. Unruffled, “When he realized his mistake, he said, ‘Never know. Gotta ask.’”
Meacham recounted how comedian Dana Carvey had once said the key to impersonating Bush, as he did for years on “Saturday Night Live,” was to do Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne.” And the historian noted to laughter that Bush, like his son, would sometimes misspeak, once saying, “It’s no exaggeration to say that the undecideds could go one way or the other.”
“His tongue may have run amok at moments,” Meacham said, “but his heart was steadfast. 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. And that was — and is — the most American of creeds.” That was 41 in a nutshell.
Next to deliver a eulogy was former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who became lifelong friends with Bush as they both led their nations. He too told stories about Bush’s storybook life, about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War (which occurred under his presidency), about all his achievements as president — and about his honor.
“There is a word for this: It is called ‘leadership.’ And let me tell you that when George Bush was president of the United States of America, every single head of government in the world knew they were dealing with a true gentlemen, a genuine leader, one who was distinguished, resolute and brave,” Mulroney said.
Then up came former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, 87 and still sharp as a tack. Simpson told wonderful stories about quiet days he spent with Bush, about how the then-vice president sought to buck him up when his career was heading south, about attending plays and fishing, and how Bush loved jokes “but he never, ever could remember a punch line. And I mean ‘never.’”
And he had delightful lines perfect for Washington — today or any time. “He was man of such great humility,” Simpson said, noting that “those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
Then Simpson summed up his longtime friend. “He never hated anyone. He knew what his mother and my mother always knew: Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in. The most decent and honorable person I ever met was my friend, George Bush. One of nature’s noblemen. His epitaph? Perhaps just a single letter, the letter ‘L’ for loyalty. It coursed through his blood. Loyalty to his country, loyalty to his family, loyalty to his friends, loyalty to the institutions of government and always, always, always a friend to his friends,” Simpson said.
Last to the podium was his eldest son, the 43rd president of the United States. W. spoke quickly, no doubt trying to stave off the tears he knew would come (and they did). He, too, told of his father’s extraordinary ability to keep his sense of humor, his legendary speed golf, and the fact that “he was born with just two settings: full throttle, then sleep.”
“To us he was close to perfect, but not totally perfect. His short game was lousy. He wasn’t exactly Fred Astaire on the dance floor. The man couldn’t stomach vegetables, especially broccoli. And by the way, he passed these genetic defects on to us,” Bush the younger said to laughter.
Then Bush reached the part of his eulogy he likely knew would bring a flood of tears, when he would speak of his mom, the 73-year marriage of his parents, his sister Robin, who died at age 3 of leukemia, and the last days of his father.
“In his old age, Dad enjoyed watching police show reruns — volume on high — all the while holding mom’s hand. After Mom died, Dad was strong, but all he really wanted to do was to hold Mom’s hand again,” he said.
W. closed with this: “We’re going to miss you. Your decency, sincerity, and kind soul will stay with us forever. So, through our tears, let us see the blessings of knowing and loving you — a great and noble man, and the best father a son or daughter could have,” Bush said, choking on emotion.
“And in our grief,” he said, blinking back tears, “let us smile knowing that Dad is hugging Robin — and holding Mom’s hand again.”