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President Bush's funeral another milestone in the passing of the 'Greatest Generation'

Noah Bierman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- An honor guard fired a 21-gun salute and a military band played "Hail to the Chief" for George H.W. Bush, America's 41st president, as his family watched his flag-draped casket descend from the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday for the last time to make the journey toward his state funeral.

Services for the patriarch of the Bush family, which dominated the Republican establishment and world affairs for much of the last century, prompted government offices to close and the nation to pause, mourn and celebrate the last president from the so-called Greatest Generation, those who grew up in the Depression and won World War II.

President George W. Bush stood with his wife, Laura, and brother Jeb, a former Florida governor and presidential candidate, their eyes welling up and their hands across their hearts in a moment that was at once personal and national in its significance.

The state funeral marks the first time all the living U.S. presidents -- Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter -- will meet since Trump was inaugurated in January 2017 after a bitter campaign in which he criticized nearly every one of them.

All of the living first ladies are also attending the 11 a.m. service at Washington National Cathedral. Rosalynn Carter, who had been expected to miss the event, was able to make it.

Trump will attend the funeral but has not been asked to speak. He will be the first sitting president not to make the speakers' program at the funeral of a predecessor since President Nixon failed to eulogize Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973.

Although Trump often criticized the elder Bush, as well as his sons George W. and Jeb, the family deliberately avoided using the funeral to make a political statement against him. Trump was excluded from former Sen. John McCain's memorial service at the same cathedral in September.

Since Bush's death Friday at age 94 at his home in Houston, Trump has showered his family with condolences and offered tributes to his public service.

On Tuesday afternoon, Trump and First Lady Melania Trump exchanged embraces with the Bush family at the Blair House, the president's official guest quarters. Trump has granted them use of Air Force One, as the plane is known when the president is aboard, for transporting the casket.

Despite those efforts, comparisons between Trump's muscular "America first" nationalism and Bush's call for a "kinder, gentler America" inevitably have dominated some of the news coverage.

The former president will be eulogized by his son George, the 43rd president, along with former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney; Alan Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming; and Jon Meacham, a historian who wrote "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush."

Mulroney became close friends with Bush as they negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, one of several aspects of Bush's legacy that Trump has excoriated.

Bush's casket lay in state under the soaring Rotunda at the U.S. Capitol since Monday night. After an official arrival ceremony with members of Congress on Monday, members of the public jostled in long lines on Tuesday, some waiting more than three hours to pay their respects to a patrician leader known for his ethics and decency.

Among the mourners Tuesday was Bob Dole, Bush's former political rival. Wounded in World War II, the 95-year-old Dole struggled to rise from his wheelchair and offer a salute to Bush, a Navy pilot who was shot down over the Pacific during the war.

In addition to competing in the 1988 Republican presidential primary, Bush and Dole helped to rebuild and define the Republican establishment, especially after Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal.

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Bush served as President Reagan's vice president for two terms, and then as president from 1989 to 1993. He led America into war to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and helped guide the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany after the Berlin Wall tumbled, as the Cold War finally drew to a close.

But Bush's deft hand in foreign affairs failed at home, where he saw his popularity plummet as the economy soured. He lost after one term to Bill Clinton, a Democrat, but Bush's popularity grew as the decades passed and his achievements became more clear.

Bush's remains were taken from the Capitol on Wednesday morning and driven to the National Cathedral, an iconic Neo-Gothic church. As president, the elder Bush attended a ceremony to mark the cathedral's completion after 83 years of construction, though decorative work continued.

The funeral was expected to last about 90 minutes and feature readings from three of his grandchildren: Ashley Bush, Lauren Bush and Jenna Bush Hager.

The casket will be flown to Houston for a second funeral on Thursday before Bush is buried in College Station, home of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University.

The program for the National Cathedral service was to feature military bands and singers and includes selections from American composers Aaron Copland and John Williams, among others.

Bush, whose close friends and family sometimes called him "41" to mark his order in the presidential procession, helped plan details of the funeral, which like other presidential funerals was carefully choreographed years in advance of his death.

"41 didn't like the idea at all of this whole week," said Chris Begala, a member of Bush's media team. "You'd be surprised how many times he would say, 'Do you really think people will come?' "

Begala said Bush had joked that he wished to set a record for the shortest presidential funeral ever.

"That is not going to be granted," he said.

(c)2018 Los Angeles Times

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