Arrival of George H.W. Bush brings a mellower mood to Washington
WASHINGTON - As befitting a fallen leader, George H.W. Bush’s final trip to Washington on Monday was marked by bands, honor guards, and a 21-gun salute.
But as a hearse carrying his casket crept toward the colonnades of the U.S. Capitol, a mood of perils surmounted and gentler times past descended over a city caught up in the throes of an embattled chief executive at war with the same machinery of government that is central to the Bush legacy.
In the morning hours as the 41st president was memorialized in Houston and flown to the nation’s capital on Air Force One - renamed “Special Air Mission 41” for his last journey - President Donald Trump unleashed a torrent of tweets about Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, Robert Mueller and other figures in the ongoing Russia investigation.
Settling into a mellower mood as the plane carrying Bush’s casket took to the air, Trump tweeted, “Looking forward to being with the Bush Family to pay my respects to President George H.W. Bush.”
Out of deference to Bush, who died Friday at 94, Trump also agreed with the decision of congressional leaders to postpone what had been expected to be a weeklong partisan battle over funding for his proposed border wall.
For a moment, to the soft strains of “My Country Tis of Thee,” there would be a brief spell of unity in America.
READ MORE: George H. W. Bush’s life and legacy
The public tributes in Washington began spontaneously Sunday night at the Kennedy Center, where a gala event honoring American artists began with an extended standing ovation in Bush’s memory at the request of singer Gloria Estefan.
“I think it’s appropriate to recognize the passing of a wonderful man who dedicated his life to service and who graciously attended this event many times during his administration, laughing, applauding, singing along and even shedding a tear from right up there in the presidential box,” Estefan said.
Her remarks provided an inescapable contrast Trump’s combative relationship with many of the artists and Washington figures featured in the event, which Trump has skipped as president.
Trump was expected, however, to meet privately later Monday with members of the Bush family, including Bush’s son George W. Bush, the 43rd president, who accompanied the casket on the plane from Ellington Field in Houston.
The meeting is expected to follow a special bipartisan ceremony honoring the late president in the Capitol Rotunda, where his body will lie in state until a service Wednesday at the National Cathedral, the funeral site of Ronald Reagan, John McCain, and other towering figures of American history.
Throughout history, only 27 people have lain in state or in honor in the Capitol, the most recent being McCain. Bush’s casket will lay upon the catafalque constructed in 1865 to support that of President Abraham Lincoln as he laid in state in the Rotunda.
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Dignitaries and ordinary Americans started forming lines at the Capitol even before Bush’s plane landed at Joint Base Andrews in nearby Maryland. Among those paying their respects were a number of Texans who saw beneath the pomp and circumstance of Bush’s last trip to Washington a message that government service can be a force for good.
“It’s very much in our hearts and minds, the somberness, but more importantly, it comes to us so poignantly that he is larger than life,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat whose husband, Elwyn Lee, was mentored through high school and college by then-Houston Congressman George H.W. Bush. “If you listened to his story over these last couple of days since his passing, first of course was God and family. Then you begin to think, this giant of a man touched every aspect of government that Americans look to.”
Jackson Lee summarized Bush’s lifetime of public service:
“First, unselfishly signing up and putting on a uniform at a very young age, surviving a horrific war, and then taking his talents, and leaving the comfort of New England, to the rough and tumble of Texas, and becoming a bigger than life Texan, a walking ‘point of light,’ as well walking us through a historical journey, serving in almost every single capacity that any American could serve, and then ultimately becoming the president of the United States.”
“I think what it says to us is that government can be good,” she continued. “We can be good people, we can do good things, we can lose and then we can win. We can win, and then we can lose. We can be servants of the people, and we can serve the nation. We can still make a difference in people’s lives. For me, that’s what George H.W. Bush was about.”
For Jackson Lee, as for many veterans of today’s acrid political culture, the celebrations of Bush’s presidency were colored by a certain nostalgia.
“For those of us serving in Congress in this tumultuous time, there’s a sweetness and a goodness about George H.W. Bush, and we are reflecting on that sweetness and goodness,” she said. “His story is very important to our lives.”
The plane carrying Bush’s casket was met on the tarmac by friends and family, including son Jeb Bush, who Trump vanquished in the testy 2016 GOP presidential primaries. Also on the tarmac were representatives of the crew of the USS. George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, members of the Army Golden Knights parachute team, and Air Force One pilots and Secret Service members who protected him as president.
Descending from the plane with the late president, besides his eldest son, former President George W. Bush, was his grandson, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, best friend and former Secretary of State James Baker, and his service dog, Sully.
Honor guards presented arms and a band rendered “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief,” followed by a 21-gun salute into the clear blue sky of a crisp, 56-degree December day.
The casket was carried to the waiting black hearse through a cordon of honor guards, accompanied by the hymn “My Country Tis of Thee.”
The band stopped playing when the casket was placed in the hearse for the trip to the Capitol Rotunda.