It was an American funeral for the immediate family, all 326,766,748 of us.
The service for President George H.W. Bush on Wednesday was a rare opportunity for America to gather as one to honor a fallen leader. Seeing the five living presidents in the same place to pay tribute to another member of their exclusive club was a glimpse into history while also offering the chance to see them interact, however briefly. It was, well, awkward.
Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and their wives were seated in front row and were joined shortly before the service started by President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump. It was an awkward moment, and Hillary Clinton, a truly unique figure as a former first lady and presidential candidate who lost to Trump in 2016. She has been the target of his attacks since, so she scarcely looked their way and her jaw noticeably tightened.
The other presidents have gotten along well over the years, although tensions between Carter and Bill Clinton have been apparent. Bill Clinton, amazingly enough, became a close friend and almost a surrogate son to George H.W. Bush, the man he defeated in 1992, and a “brother from another mother,” according to George W. Bush in his emotional, moving eulogy. Former Wyoming Sen. Al Simpson’s eulogy was a high point of the service. It was typically witty and insightful, a reason President Bush treasured their friendship and strongly considered making him his running mate in 1988. He had the most-quoted line of the day, too.
“Those that travel the high road of humility in Washington are not bothered by heavy traffic,” Simpson said, drawing smiles from people inside and outside the Washington National Cathedral.
I was fortunate to get to know Al, as he insists people call him, when I worked in Wyoming from 2013-15. Like Bush, he was the son of a senator who rose to national prominence. I enjoyed every discussion and interview I had with him, and Al was kind enough to say nice things about my writing, in a rough-hewn Wyoming fashion: “I read your crap,” he said a time or two when discussing my editorials and columns.
His words always elicit smiles, which was useful on Wednesday.
President George W. Bush, the namesake of his father, followed him to the White House just eight years after his dad was defeated for a second term. His remarks were charming and funny, although he broke down just for a second near the end, and understandably so.
Having spoken at my own father’s funeral, I understood that emotion. You want to pay tribute to your dad, and explain something about him, but all the same, you are a son missing a father.
We all know the pain of a family funeral, the sense of loss, the feeling of a vital part of you forever removed, torn from you, never to be replaced. A president, so familiar to most of us, becomes a part of our extended family.
That’s why millions of people watched this funeral, and felt the loss and remembered both the president and the man.
It was the first presidential funeral since Gerald Ford’s service in 2006, which came after the state funeral for Ronald Reagan in 2004. Both of them lived into their 90s, as did Bush and as has Carter, still active and building homes for Habitat for Humanity at 94.
It was the four straight state funeral for a Republican president, with Richard Nixon having died in 1994. Nixon, who resigned in disgrace 20 years earlier, turned down a state funeral, but all living presidents — Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton — attended the service in California. No Democratic president has died since 1973, when Lyndon Johnson, worn out at just 64, died a few weeks after Harry S. Truman passed away at 88.
We don’t know who next will depart from the small club of former leaders, but when he does, once again the men who have held that office and know well its burdens, will gather. The American family will watch and mourn together.
South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.
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