WASHINGTON — In an emotional farewell at the National Cathedral, the 43rd president of the United States broke down as he remembered “a great and noble man, the best father a son or daughter could have,” and urged funeral attendees to smile knowing that President George H.W. Bush is hugging his late daughter Robin “and holding mom’s hand again.”
“In his 90s, he took great delight when his closest pal, James A. Baker, smuggled a bottle of Grey Goose vodka into his hospital room. Apparently, it paired well with the steak Baker had delivered from Morton’s,” President George W. Bush recalled as he eulogized his father.
Baker later broke down in tears as Rev. Russell Levenson, Jr., the Bush family’s pastor, described Baker rubbing Bush Sr.’s feet to comfort his old friend in his final moments.
“To his very last days, dad’s life was instructive. As he aged, he taught us how to grow with dignity, humor, and kindness and when the good Lord finally called how to meet him with courage and with the joy of the promise of what lies ahead,” George W. Bush said. “…Dad could relate to people from all walks of life. He was an empathetic man. He valued character over pedigree and he was no cynic. He looked for the good in each person and he usually found it. Dad taught us that public service is noble and necessary, that one can serve with integrity and hold true to the important values like faith and family.”
“He strongly believed that it was important to give back to the community and country in which one lived. He recognized that serving others enriched the giver’s soul. To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light,” Bush added. “In victory he shared credit, when he lost, he shouldered the blame. He accepted that failure is a part of living a full life but taught us never to be defined by failure. He showed us how setbacks can strengthen.”
The Bush family occupied one front row at the cathedral, while on the other side of the aisle the row was filled with the current and former presidents and their spouses.
While greeting them before the funeral service, Bush slipped his pal Michelle Obama a piece of candy from his pocket — a nod to their exchange as seat-mates during Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) funeral.
“Last Friday when I was told he had minutes to live I called him,” Bush said. “The guy answered the phone said he — I think he can hear you but he hadn’t said anything for most of the day. I said dad, I love you and you’ve been a wonderful father. And the last words he would ever say on Earth were I love you, too.”
Baker, who did not speak at the service, said in past days that he went to see the elder Bush on Friday. Bush asked his former secretary of State, “Where are we going, Bake?” Baker replied, “We’re going to heaven.” Bush responded, “That’s where I want to go.”
In eulogizing Bush, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney remembered his friend as “a man of high accomplishment” who “also had a delightful sense of humor and was a lot of fun.”
“Many men of differing talents and skills have served as president, and many more will do so as the decades unfold, bringing new strength and glory to these United States of America,” Mulroney said. “And 50 or 100 years from now, as historians review the accomplishments and the context of all who have served as president, I believe it will be said that in the life of this country, the United States, which is, in my judgment, the greatest democratic republic that God has ever placed on the face of this Earth, I believe it will be said that no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled, and more honorable than George Herbert Walker Bush.”
Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), in a string of funny anecdotes, recalled that when the “read my lips” president realized he’d have to raise taxes, he said, “What I’ve said on that subject sure puts a hell of a lot of heat on me.”
“And then they all said yes, but we can get it done and it will be bipartisan. And George said, ‘OK, go for it but it will be a real punch in the gut.’ Bob Dole then a loyal warrior for George, took it back to the Senate and we won a very strong bipartisan vote,” Simpson said. “And went over to the House where his own party turned on him, surely one of the main factors ensuring his return to private life. But he often said, ‘When the really tough choices come, it’s the country not me. It’s not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s for our country that I fought for.’ And he was a man of such grace, humility — those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
“So the punch line for George Herbert Walker Bush is this. You would have wanted him on your side. He never lost his sense of humor. Humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life. That’s what humor is. He never hated anyone. He knew what his mother and my mother always knew. Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried on.”
The 41st president’s casket and the Bush family departed from Joint Base Andrews after the service, en route home to Texas where he will be laid to rest at his presidential library in College Station.