For George HW Bush, a day of mourning and a celebration of life

Ian Bush
December 05, 2018 - 7:36 am
Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush watch as the flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a joint services military honor guard to a State Funeral at the National Cathedral December 5, 2018.

Alex Brandon - Pool/Getty Images

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WASHINGTON (KYW Newsradio) — The nation's capital bids a final farewell today to the 41st president.

George H. W. Bush will be honored at the 34th state funeral in the history of Washington, D.C., as all five living presidents and other global dignitaries are expected to attend the ceremony at the National Cathedral. 

But first, there is more solemn pageantry both inside and outside the Capitol, where Bush’s body has lain in state since Monday evening. The Bush family will take part in a departure ceremony, during which a 21-gun salute will echo across the National Mall as the casket is carried down the Capitol steps and placed in the hearse for the drive to the cathedral. Navy captains, admirals and members of the USS George H.W. Bush carrier strike group are ceremonial pallbearers.

PHOTOS: President George H.W. Bush lies in state at U.S. Capitol

For nearly 36 hours, thousands of people visited the Capitol Rotunda to pay their respects to Bush in person. Dava Guerin from New Hope, Bucks County, was among them.

"He was one of a kind — the most gracious, caring person,” Guerin said. “I think he just cared about all people."

She got to know the Bushes while volunteering at the president's events in Philadelphia and through her advocacy for wounded veterans. The first family hosted her and the war heroes at their compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Through the years, Guerin got to know the man behind the leader-of-the-Free-World mythology — and she found what the rest of the country has been hearing a lot about since his death.

"I think this is a good lesson for everyone in our world today, to stop the bickering and start working together to inspire a generation of people,” Guerin said. “To inspire every American to be better, to be kinder, to be gentler, to care about others, and to work together as a team."

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The Rotunda, the normally cacophonous cathedral of American politics, fell hushed as Bush’s flag-draped casket became a days-long focal point. Tom Ridge, a Bush campaign worker, former Pennsylvania governor, and Department of Homeland Security secretary under George W. Bush, arrived on Tuesday to honor his long-time friend.

“I was there to celebrate a life well-lived, a passion that he had, a commitment he had,” Ridge said. "He had experience and capability beyond belief,” Ridge said. “But also a good touch, a deft touch, a humble touch, a humanitarian touch, a desire to reach across the aisle, to understand the other person's point of view. All these things, I think, are critically needed for America to be successful."

All that, and the elder Bush was effective at governing, Ridge says. He holds it as evidence for the incoming Congress — and hopes they practice the principles they've praised Bush for since his death.

The late former president was not lonely as he lay in state. Around the clock, and from around the world, people came to spend a moment with the public servant. Adam Keys, who grew up in the Lehigh Valley, says he gave a salute and thanks.

"Beyond everything that everybody talks about, the CIA and being a president and being a war hero and all these awesome things was the ADA that he implemented — the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Keys said. “So we owe him big time."

Veteran Adam Keys, who grew up in the Lehigh Valley, shows the Presidential Challenge Coin given to him by George H.W. Bush.
Ian Bush/KYW Newsradio

This Army veteran knows the benefits of the ADA all too well, having been hit by an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan. 

“I was always worried about going out — if there's one step, it could be game over for somebody like me in a wheelchair,” Keys explained. “After he implemented the ADA in the early '90s, the country's been getting better and better. I can get to most places these days, and one day it'll be every place. And that's a great thing — a great feeling.”

The 1990 civil rights legislation Bush signed into law is designed to fight discrimination against disabled people. Ridge said the president considered it among his greatest accomplishments.

“He had a collaborative style that worked exceptionally well even in very chaotic times,” Ridge noted. “Papa Bush brought a couple of Republicans and a couple of Democrats together to say, 'Hey, how do we take the next step together?'”

That wasn’t the only time Bush helped people take the next step together.

RELATED: Presidents club assembles for Bush funeral, Trump on fringes

As the first family welcomed wounded warriors to their Kennebunkport home in 2015, Tyler Jeffries’ girlfriend went to lunch nearby.

“I was planning on proposing that evening at dinner,” the Afghan war vet said. Once the Bushes learned about his idea, they invited (really, insisted) Jeffries’ girlfriend come to their estate for the marriage proposal.

“So I said, ‘Roger that, Mr. President,’ and I got on the phone,” Jeffries recounted. “I called her about five times, and she didn’t answer! I was getting so angry — but then she finally picked up and I said, ‘Babe, get here now. President Bush has ordered you to get here now.’ She pulled up to the gate, and Secret Service just waved her right on through. And so I popped the question. [She said yes.] To do that in front of two presidents and two first ladies, you know, it's quite an experience, to say the least.”

PHOTOS: President George H.W. Bush lies in state at U.S. Capitol

Jeffries visited the Rotunda on Tuesday to pay his respects to the former commander-in-chief. He was part of a group of wounded veterans led by Guerin, co-author of "Unbreakable Bonds: The Mighty Moms and Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed," for which Bush wrote the foreword.

“He handled his life with grace and dignity,” Guerin said. “He handled his job with bipartisanship. But his caring about all people is really what I admire the most — along with his humor and his heart.”

As the attention of the Rotunda crowds and cameras on Tuesday briefly drifted to Sully, Bush’s now-famous service dog whose leash Ridge held at the foot of the casket, Ridge spent time reflecting on how Bush would want his legacy to continue.

"We don't dig our heels in and say, 'My judgment is better than yours. I'm smarter than you are,'” Ridge said. “I don't think President Bush ever did that. I think he said, 'OK, we're both pretty smart. This is an interesting problem. We both understand it's a problem. Let's solve it together.' As a country, we need to get back to that."