Mourners paying respects to Bush seek sense of civility, healing

Ian Bush
December 04, 2018 - 7:55 am
Dec 4, 2018; Washington, DC, U.S.A; Visitors to the Capitol Rotunda pay respects to President George H.W. Bush as he lies in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (KYW Newsradio, AP) — Thirty-six hours of public mourning continues in Washington as people continue to file past the flag-draped casket of George H.W. Bush, who lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

Members of the public lined up before sunrise to pay their respects as an honor guard stood watch beside Bush's casket in the cavernous Rotunda, open until Wednesday's funeral. Some people waited about 9 hours to get inside. A number of groups with a special connection to the 41st president are getting the chance to pay tribute. 

Throughout the day, groups from the CIA, which Bush led in the mid-to-late '70s, will visit, as will some of those responsible for and who benefited from the Americans with Disabilites Act, which Bush signed into law. Classmates from Yale and other schools will visit, as well as servicemembers from the Desert Storm battlefield.

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An Army reservist, Noah, who came with his wife from Lexington Park, Maryland — about an hour and a half away — saw fit to bring their daughters, age 4 and 8, to the Capitol on a school night.

"We just talked about showing respect, saying a little prayer possibly, getting there and taking in the gravity of the moment of what the world was like," Noah said. "Give them a little bit of an experience they'll carry forever."

Also at the Capitol are members of the Points of Light Foundation, the volunteer movement inspired by Bush's "thousand points of light" speech. The organization is hoping people will honor the president's legacy by pledging time to volunteer.

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Those paying their respects for President Bush receive a memorial card with his photo on the front, embossed gold stars, and on the back, a list of his contributions to public service. From his time in the U.S. Navy, in Congress, as a U.N. Ambassador, as liaison to China, CIA director, and the top two jobs in the White House — it's all there. 

Some people are in the capital on vacation, but others traveled to Washington just for this tribute. Connie and her husband from Muncy, Pennsylvania, drove 3.5 hours. She wore the same American flag scarf she had on when she was there for President Trump's inauguration, but she says today's politicians of all stripes might do well to study the first President Bush.

"He really is a hero to many people," she said. "He personifies what is great about this country. He's beloved — both Democrat and Republican. I think that's something that's lacking."

Capitol Police set up cattle chutes for purposes of crowd control, one to the right and one to the left of the entrance to the Visitors Center, where mourners are filing through security before entering the Rotunda. 

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Nancy and Jeff from Wakefield, Massachusetts, were first in line on Tuesday morning. They had to get there around 10:30 Monday morning. They were already in town for a family party and decided to cancel their flight back to Boston to pay tribute to the late president.

"I think a lot of him as a man with a lot of character. He tried to do a lot for the country," Nancy said. "He's trying to set an example even through death, trying to have everyone be as one."

Sherry from Kent Island, Maryland, brought her son Thomas, who's a high school freshman.

"It was important for me to come to honor a man who had such integrity and such character. And led our country in such a beautiful way. I want to emphasize that to my son," Sherry said. "I have three others.That's what true leadership is about."

She sums up Bush as "an honorable example of public service, and her 14-year-old is getting the message. He's already politically active — though at the Bernie Sanders end of the spectrum:

"The thing, though, is that he shares mostly the same values as Bush," Thomas said. "Even though they don't have the same views, I think it's still the same attitude toward politics and people in general. It's more centered. It's not shouting at people."

Civil discourse, rather than rancor and discord — these are sentiments reflected here almost to a person. They don't like the divisive tone set by the country's partisan divide. That's not to say Bush 41 was infalliable, but this mom and son believe there are lessons for today's politicans and future leaders alike to be learned.

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Cliff from Ontario found himself a witness to history while on vacation.

"He's the leader of the Free World, and as a member of the Free World, he's my president too," Cliff said. "It was important for me to pay my respect to him. And that's why we sat here for six hours."

Cliff says Canadians see so much of American politicians on TV, he feels politically more American than Canadian. He'll feel at home with Wednesday's funeral, too, when former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney will be one of the eulogists.

With Bush's casket atop the Lincoln Catafalque, first used for Abraham Lincoln's 1865 funeral, dignitaries came forward Monday to honor the Texan whose efforts for his country extended three quarters of a century from World War II through his final years as an advocate for volunteerism and relief for people displaced by natural disaster.

In an invocation opening Monday evening's ceremony, the U.S. House chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J Conroy, praised Bush's commitment to public service, from Navy pilot to congressman, U.N. ambassador, envoy to China and then CIA director before being elected vice president and then president.

"Here lies a great man," said Rep. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, and "a gentle soul. ... His legacy is grace perfected."

Vice President Mike Pence and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell also spoke. President Donald Trump did not attend, but he and first lady Melania Trump came to the Capitol later Monday to pay tribute. They stood in front of the casket with their eyes closed for a few moments, before Trump saluted the casket.

Political combatants set aside their fights to honor a Republican who led in a less toxic era and at times found commonality with Democrats despite sharp policy disagreements. Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a past House speaker nominated for the post in the new Congress, exchanged a warm hug with George W. Bush and came away dabbing her face. Bush himself seemed to be holding back tears.

Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, placed wreaths in the short ceremony before the rotunda was opened to the public.

Sent off from Texas with a 21-gun salute, Bush's casket was carried to Joint Base Andrews outside the capital city aboard an aircraft that often serves as Air Force One and designated "Special Air Mission 41" in honor of Bush's place on the chronological list of presidents. His eldest son, former President George W. Bush, and others from the family traveled on the flight from Houston.

Cannon fire roared again outside the Capitol as the sun sank and the younger President Bush stood with his hand over his heart, watching the casket's procession up the steps.

Bush was remembered just feet away from what he called "Democracy's front porch," the west-facing steps of the Capitol where he was sworn in as president.

He will lie in state in the Capitol for public visitation through Wednesday. An invitation-only funeral service, which the Trumps will attend, is set for Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral.

Although Bush's funeral services are suffused with the flourishes accorded presidents, by his choice they will not include a formal funeral procession through downtown Washington.

Eulogies will be offered by former President George W. Bush, former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and historian Jon Meacham, Bush family spokesmen said.

On Sunday, students, staff and visitors had flocked to Bush's presidential library on the campus of Texas A&M University, with thousands of mourners paying their respects at a weekend candlelight vigil at a nearby pond and others contributing to growing flower memorials at Bush statues at both the library and a park in downtown Houston.

"I think he was one of the kindest, most generous men," said Marge Frazier, who visited the downtown statue Sunday while showing friends from California around.

After services in Washington, Bush will be returned to Houston to lie in repose at St. Martin's Episcopal Church before burial Thursday at his family plot on the library grounds. His final resting place will be alongside Barbara Bush, his wife of 73 years who died in April, and Robin Bush, the daughter they lost to leukemia in 1953 at age 3.

Trump has ordered the federal government closed Wednesday for a national day of mourning. Flags on public buildings are flying at half-staff for 30 days.

Bush's passing puts him in the Washington spotlight after more than two decades living the relatively low-key life of a former president. His death also reduces membership in the ex-presidents' club to four: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

One of Bush's major achievements was assembling the international military coalition that liberated the tiny, oil-rich nation of Kuwait from invading neighbor Iraq in 1991. The war lasted just 100 hours. He also presided over the end of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

A humble hero of World War II, Bush was just 20 when he survived being shot down during a bombing run over a Japanese island. He had joined the Navy when he turned 18.

Shortly before leaving the service, he married his 19-year-old sweetheart, Barbara Pierce, and forged the longest presidential marriage in U.S. history. Bush enrolled at Yale University after military service, becoming a scholar-athlete and captaining the baseball team to two College World Series before graduating Phi Beta Kappa after just 2½ years.

After moving to Texas to work in the oil business, Bush turned his attention to politics in the 1960s. He was elected to the first of two terms in Congress in 1967. He would go on to serve as ambassador to the United Nations and China, head of the CIA and chairman of the Republican National Committee before being elected to two terms as Ronald Reagan's vice president.

Soon after he reached the height of his political popularity following the liberation of Kuwait, with public approval ratings that are the envy of today's politicians, the U.S. economy began to sour and voters began to believe that Bush, never a great communicator — something even he acknowledged — was out of touch with ordinary people.

He was denied a second term by Arkansas Gov. Clinton, who would later become a close friend. The pair worked together to raise tens of millions of dollars for victims of a 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and of Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005.

"Who would have thought that I would be working with Bill Clinton of all people?" he joked in 2005.

In a recent essay, Clinton declared of Bush: "I just loved him."

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The Associated Press, including writers Juan A. Lozano and Nomaan Merchant in Houston and Darlene Superville in Washington, contributed to this report.