George HW Bush: Four ways his funeral was different

  • 5 December 2018
George HW Bush and John McCainImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionGeorge HW Bush and John McCain both had distinguished service in the US Navy

On a chilly day in December, friends, family, officials and dignitaries gathered at the Washington National Cathedral to memorialise President George HW Bush.

Just over three months earlier, on a scorching first day of September, the same grandiose site was the scene of another memorial service, for senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Bush was the son of a senator; McCain, the son of an admiral. Bush was almost certainly the last US president to have fought in World War II. McCain was perhaps as close as any Vietnam War veteran will come to winning the White House.

On the surface, the services of the two Republicans were similar – the military pageantry, the ceremony, the choirs and the sermons. They were also, however, quite different – and, perhaps, mark divergent paths the US could follow in the days ahead.

Donald Trump

The first and most obvious contrast between the two events was the presence of the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump was conspicuously not invited to McCain’s service, highlighting the tense relations between the two men over the final years of McCain’s life.

Mr Trump, in one of the first controversies of his presidential candidacy, mocked McCain’s war record and time in a North Vietnamese prison.

The president has also feuded with the Bushes, of course, including belittling son Jeb’s “low-energy” performance during the 2016 campaign.

The Trump, Obamas, Clintons and CartersImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe Trump, Obamas, Clintons and Carters

In the past few days, however, old wounds seem to have been mended. Mr Trump welcomed the family to the Blair House, across the street from the White House, and paid his respects as the elder Bush laid in state at the US Capitol.

On Wednesday, Mr Trump was front and centre at the cathedral, seated next to three other living former presidents and their spouses.

The president’s entrance was not without some drama, however, as he walked towards the Clintons and Carters without offering a greeting and only shook Michelle and Barack Obama’s hands after taking a seat next to them.

With the Bushes, however, there was nothing but graciousness.

Short presentational grey line

The eulogies

At McCain’s funeral, the in absentia criticism of Mr Trump from the cathedral’s dais was pointed. Susan Glasser of the New Yorker called the service “a meeting of the Resistance, under vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows.”

Barack Obama, in his eulogy, took thinly veiled shots at his successor.

Media caption‘The last words he would ever say on Earth’ – George W Bush delivers his eulogy to his father

“So much of our politics can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage,” Obama said. “It’s a politics that pretends to be brave, but in fact is borne of fear.”

During the eulogy of her father, Meghan McCain’s words were even more direct: “The America of John McCain does not need to be made great again, because it is already great.”

On Wednesday any criticism of Mr Trump could only be discerned by noting the effusiveness of the praise showered on his predecessor.

Historian and author Jon Meacham called Bush a “20th Century founding father” and “a lion who not only led us, but who loved us.”

Media captionHighlights from an emotional state funeral remembering former President George HW Bush

With George W Bush, the praise was personal.

“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,” the eldest son said.

“When the history books are written, they will say that George HW Bush was a great president of the United States – a diplomat of unmatched skill, a commander-in-chief of formidable accomplishment, and a gentleman who executed the duties of his office with dignity and honour.”

Both Bush’s and McCain’s speeches elicited applause from the packed cathedral – a rarity on such sombre occasions. Mr Bush’s came at the end of his eulogy, however, just after his voice cracked while describing Bush as “the best father a son or daughter could have”.

It was as if the mourners were trying to lift him from his grief.

Ms McCain’s came following the America-is-already-great line, as though the audience was locking arms in solidarity.

If McCain’s funeral was a call to resist, Bush’s was an appeal for the return of a seemingly bygone time of perceived comity.

“Some have said this is an end of an era,” Bush’s Houston pastor Russell Levenson said in his homily. “But it does not have to be. Perhaps it is an invitation to fill the hole that has been left behind.”

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A global affair

It’s perhaps not surprising that the funeral of a former president commanded the world’s attention in a way that McCain’s services did not. The Arizonan did have a number of dignitaries, including the presidents of Ukraine and Panama, the secretary-general of Nato, and various government ministers and former officials.

Bush’s attendees included Prince Charles, former British Prime Minister John Major, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, King Abdullah of Jordan and Polish President Andrzej Duda.

In what could be interpreted as a veiled contrast to the current occupant of the Oval Office, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney – who also eulogised Ronald Reagan in 2004 – said that with Bush world leaders knew they were dealing with a “gentleman” and a “genuine leader” – “one who was distinguished, resolute and brave”.

John Major, Prince Charles and Angela MerkelImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionJohn Major, Prince Charles and Angela Merkel
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The pallbearers

Given that McCain had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and Bush was 94 and in poor health, both men had plenty of time to personally plan their memorial services.

“George told me I only had 10 minutes,” former Senator Alan Simpson, one of Bush’s eulogists, quipped. “He was very direct about it.”

Given the detail of the planning, every choreographed moment could be analysed for hidden meaning.

One aspect that garnered particular attention with McCain was the identity of his pallbearers – all 15 of them. Was the selection of a Russian dissident a jab at Mr Trump? And what to make of the bipartisan assortment of politicians, including former presidents Obama and George W Bush?

With Bush – a former naval aviator – the 13 pallbearers were all current or former Navy officers who commanded the USS George HW Bush aircraft carrier or its strike force.

No mystery there.