A 21-gun salute is fired outside the U.S. Capitol to honor President George H.W. Bush. The former president will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda starting Monday.
WASHINGTON – Former President George H.W. Bush was eulogized at a ceremony in the Capitol on Monday as a gracious, humble public servant who remained a model of human decency throughout his life.
“In consequential times, George Herbert Walker Bush demonstrated the finest qualifies of our nation and of humankind,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Bush, he said, was “a great leader and a good man.”
Later Monday, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump joined other Americans who showed up at the Capitol to pay their respects to Bush, who died late Friday in Houston at age 94 after a battle with vascular Parkinsonism.
Trump and the first lady walked into the Capitol Rotunda at 8:30 p.m. and stood side by side for roughly a minute in front of Bush’s flag-draped coffin. Trump saluted the casket, and the first lady placed her hand on her heart before the couple exited.
Neither the president nor the first lady spoke. But in a message to Congress, Trump said Bush led a life “that exemplified what is truly great about America.”
“As with so many of his generation, the Greatest Generation, President Bush worked selflessly throughout his long life to bring about a world of justice and lasting peace,” Trump wrote. “With his passing, we mark one of the last pages of a defining chapter in American history.”
The flag-draped coffin of the nation’s 41st president, who will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda until Wednesday, arrived in Washington for the final time Monday afternoon aboard the blue-and-white presidential jet that serves as Air Force One.
A light breeze blew as the jet, designated as Special Air Mission 41 in Bush’s honor, touched down at 3:22 p.m. at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, just outside of Washington.
A formation of Air Force personnel and sailors from the USS George H.W. Bush, the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, stood at attention as the aircraft landed.
Members of Bush’s family, including former President George W. Bush, former first lady Laura Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, watched silently as Bush’s coffin was lifted from the jet and carried to the black hearse that took him to the Capitol.
Dusk was beginning to settle over the capital city, and pink and purple streaks of light filled the skies when the hearse pulled up to the East Front of the Capitol about a half-hour later.
An eight-man team of military pallbearers gently lifted the coffin from the hearse amid a 21-gun salute and a military band’s rendition of “Hail to the Chief.” They slowly carried the coffin up the steps of the Capitol and into the Rotunda, where it rests on the same catafalque that supported the casket of Abraham Lincoln after his assassination in 1865.
At the bipartisan ceremony in the Capitol, Bush was remembered with admiration by Ryan, Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Pence detailed Bush’s extensive record of public service, which began when he enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and continued for four years in the House and through assignments as a United Nations ambassador, the nation’s first envoy to China and head of the CIA.
Before he was elected president in 1988, Bush served as Ronald Reagan’s vice president for eight years.
Pence cited a letter Bush wrote in which he described the vice presidency as a job that involved “nothing substantive to do at all.” He paused and looked around for a short time and cracked a small smile, drawing a chuckle from those in the Rotunda.
“There was a kindness about the man that was evident to anyone who ever met him,” Pence said.
McConnell recalled that Bush was only 20 when his plane was hit on a bombing run in 1944. Through fire and smoke, Bush remained steady at the controls and didn’t parachute out over the Pacific until he had accomplished his mission, McConnell said.
Through his decades of public service, “George Herbert Walker Bush steered this country as straight as he steered that airplane,” McConnell said. “He kept us flying high and challenged us to fly higher still. And he did it with modesty and kindness that would have been surprising in someone one-tenth as tough and as accomplished as he was.”
Throughout the ceremony, an emotional George W. Bush looked at the ceiling to try to compose himself.
The public was allowed to enter the Capitol and pay respects starting at 7:30 p.m. EST.
Outside the Capitol, a line started to form even before Bush’s coffin arrived. Some people had been in line for hours.
Sherry Murray of Washington got in line at 12:30 p.m. “He was a wonderful man, a great leader full of integrity and character, and we need to honor that,” she said.
Murray brought her 14-year-old son, Thomas, to “point out what good leaders are for him to follow and to encourage him to participate.”
Rick Johnson, 64, of Maryland worked at Texas A&M University as part of a team that helped raise money to build Bush’s presidential library.
“He was just a really great guy – classy, intelligent,” Johnson said. “He would treat everyone like a friend. That part of my life was just exceptional.”
Asked what he would do when he got inside the Capitol to pay his respects, Johnson offered a one-word response: “Cry.”
A number of the people waiting outside were veterans.
Samantha Cooper and Chelsea Perry are fellows with the Wounded Warrior Fellowship, a program for wounded veterans through the House of Representatives. They were in Washington this week for the program’s orientation and stopped to pay their respects to the former commander in chief.
“How could you be here and not pay your respect to someone who served our country?” asked Cooper, an Air Force veteran from Florida. “It’s a sad day for us to lose someone so wonderful.”
“It’s a historical moment that we’re able to witness,” said Perry, an Air Force veteran who lives in Arkansas. “He was a well-loved person.”
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said most of his colleagues were inside the Capitol, but he and his wife, Margaret Cheney, wanted to wait outside to catch the military procession and arrival. Welch held up his camera as the hearse arrived.
“It’s beautiful,” he said to his wife as the casket was carried into the Capitol.
“We’re witnessing the gracious and dignified departure of a gracious and dignified man,” he said.
A funeral service for Bush is planned for Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral, and President Donald Trump said he will attend.
“Looking forward to being with the Bush Family to pay my respects to President George H.W. Bush,” Trump tweeted Monday. Former Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush also will attend.
Speakers will include Bush, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and historian Jon Meacham.
The former president’s remains will be flown back to Texas for a funeral Thursday at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. Burial is set for later Thursday at the site of his presidential library on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, 100 miles northwest of Houston.
Bush is to be laid to rest beside Barbara Bush, his wife of 73 years, and daughter Robin, who was 3 years old when she died of leukemia in 1953.
Late Monday, the House opened a brief session with a prayer honoring Bush and praising his “life of service.”
The chamber passed resolutions to send “deep sympathies” to the Bush family and authorized the use of the Rotunda and a catafalque for the president to lie in state. The clerk read a message from Trump praising Bush’s service.
“With his passing, we mark one of the last pages of a defining chapter in American history,’’ it said.
The House adjourned until noon Thursday. Several Senate and House committee hearings and meetings scheduled for this week were postponed.
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Contributing: John Bacon, Deborah Berry, Cat Hofacker, Bill Theobald and Maureen Groppe
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