Farewell To 41: Memories Of Bush's Humor Brings Joy To Sorrowful Day

December 05, 2018 - 2:11 pm

WASHINGTON (WCBS 880/AP) — George H.W. Bush was celebrated with high praise and loving humor Wednesday as the nation bade farewell to the man who was America's 41st president and the last to fight for the U.S. in wartime. Three former presidents looked on at Washington National Cathedral as a fourth — George W. Bush — eulogized his dad.

"To us," the son said of the father, "his was the brightest of a thousand points of light."

Former President George W. Bush gave the final eulogy of the day, saying he told his father just before he died that he had been a “wonderful dad” and was able to tell him that he loved him. The 43rd president said the last words his father "would ever say on earth were, 'I love you, too.''' 

George W. Bush extolled his father for his service as president and as a role model as a loving husband, father and grandfather. 

Bush choked up at the end of his eulogy before regaining his composure. He patted his father's flag-draped coffin twice as he went back to his seat at the Washington National Cathedral. Former first lady Laura Bush wiped her eyes with a tissue as her husband sat next to her.

The somber day was also filled with memories of George H.W. Bush's underappreciated sense of humor, drawing laughter and smiles to the mourners of the 41st president.

Presidential historian Jon Meacham recounted how comedian Dana Carvey once said that the key to doing his iconic impersonation of Bush was to mimic "Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne."

That prompted chuckles that rang from the vaulted arches inside the Washington National Cathedral.

Meacham said once on the primary campaign trail in New Hampshire, Bush mistakenly grabbed the hand of a department store mannequin asking for votes. Meacham said, "When he realized his mistake, he said 'Never know. Gotta ask.'"

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The former president, who died Friday at age 94, often had tongue-twisted moments and uttered funny one-liners.

Looking ahead to the 1988 election, Bush once said: "It's no exaggeration to say that the undecideds could go one way or the other." And Meacham said that late in his presidency, Bush's tongue ran amok when he said: "We are enjoying sluggish times, but we're not enjoying them very much."

The former president's eldest son, former President George W. Bush, got in on the act, telling the packed cathedral that his father was no Fred Astaire on the dance floor and couldn't stomach vegetables, especially broccoli. While president, the elder Bush famously declared his dislike of broccoli.

George W. Bush said his father also shared jokes via email with his circle of friends. "His grading system for the quality of the joke was classic George Bush: The rare sevens and eights were considered huge winners, most of them off-color," the younger Bush said.

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He said his dad really got the last laugh of the day because he chose former Sen. Alan Simpson to be one of the people to speak at Wednesday's ceremony.

"He placed great value on a good joke, so he chose Simpson to speak," the younger Bush said.

Simpson said his friend never lost his sense of humor.

"He had a very serious flaw known by all close to him: He loved a good joke — the richer the better," Simpson said. "And he threw his head back and gave that great laugh, but he never, ever could remember a punchline. And I mean never."

"Humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life," Simpson continued. "He never hated anyone. He knew what his mother and my mother always knew: Hatred corrodes the container it's carried in."

Simpson also hailed his old friend as man of humility, a commodity the Wyoming Republican says is rare in the capital.
Simpson said, "Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.'' He recalled that once while he was under fire by the press, Bush told him to "wave to your pals over there in the media'' as they passed photographers.
Simpson says Bush accepted a 1990 bipartisan budget deal that included a tax increase, despite his campaign pledge to not raise taxes. He says Bush said, "OK, go for it, but it will be a real punch in the gut.'' Simpson says "his own party turned on him'' for that, contributing to his 1992 re-election defeat.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney praised Bush as a strong world leader who helped oversee the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and helped bring about the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, signed into law by his successor, Clinton.

With Trump, a bitter NAFTA critic, seated in the front row, Mulroney hailed the "largest and richest free trade area in the history of the world." The three countries have agreed on a revised trade agreement pushed by Trump.

After three days of funeral events in Washington, Bush was headed home to Texas for more ceremony and then his burial Thursday. After the cathedral service, the hearse and a long motorcade drove to the National Mall to pass by the World War II Memorial, a nod to the late president's service as a World War II Navy pilot, then arrived at Joint Base Andrews.

Cannon roared again, "Hail to the Chief" was played for Bush for a final time in the capital and the plane with his casket and Bush family members aboard took off for Houston. 

Bush's remains are being transported to Houston to lie in repose at St. Martin's Episcopal Church before burial Thursday at his family plot on the presidential library grounds at Texas A&M University in College Station.

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.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)