Thousands Salute Bush Ahead Of Texas Burial

December 06, 2018 - 6:27 pm
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HOUSTON (WCBS 880/AP) — Thousands waved and cheered along the route as funeral train 4141 — for the 41st president — carried George H.W. Bush's remains toward their final resting place in Texas on Thursday, his last journey as a week of national remembrance took on a decidedly personal feel in an emotional home state farewell.

Some people laid coins along the tracks that wound through small town Texas so a 420,000-pound locomotive pulling the nation's first funeral train in nearly half a century could crunch them into souvenirs. Others snapped pictures or crowded for views so close that police helicopters overhead had to warn them back.

The scenes reminiscent of a bygone era were a far cry from a serious and more somber tone at an earlier funeral service at a Houston church, where Bush's former secretary of state and confidant for decades, James Baker, addressed him as "jefe," Spanish for "boss." At times choking back tears, Baker praised Bush as "a beautiful human being" who had "the courage of a warrior. But when the time came for prudence, he maintained the greater courage of a peacemaker."

Baker also provided a contrast with today's divisive political rhetoric, saying that Bush's "wish for a kinder, gentler nation was not a cynical political slogan. It came honest and unguarded from his soul."

"The world became a better place because George Bush occupied the White House for four years," said Baker.

President George H.W. Bush Final Train Ride
Photo by David J. Phillip/Pool/Sipa USA

Following the funeral, as the motorcade carrying Bush's remains sped down a closed highway from the church to the train station, construction workers on all levels of an unfinished building paused to watch, while a man sitting on a ferris wheel near the aquarium in downtown Houston waved.

Bush's remains were then loaded onto a special train in a car fitted with clear sides so people could catch a glimpse of the casket as it rumbled by. The train traveled about 70 miles in two-plus hours — the first presidential funeral train journey since Dwight D. Eisenhower's remains went from Washington to his native Kansas 49 years ago — to the family plot on the presidential library grounds at Texas A&M University. Bush's final resting place is alongside his wife, Barbara, and Robin Bush, the daughter they lost to leukemia at age 3.

At around 5:45 p.m. Texas A&M said the private, graveside service for George H.W. Bush's family members ended and the former president had been buried, concluding days of funeral activities honoring the 41st president.

In the town of Cypress, 55-year-old Doug Allen left eight coins on the tracks before the train passed — three quarters, three dimes and two pennies. The train left the coins flattened and slightly discolored.

"It's something we'll always keep," Allen said. 

Andy Gordon, 38, took his 6-year-old daughter, Addison, out of school so she and her 3-year-old sister, Ashtyn, could see the train pass in Pinehurst, Texas.

"Hopefully, my children will remember the significance and the meaning of today," Gordon said. Addison was carrying two small American flags in her hand.

At the funeral service in St. Martin's Episcopal Church, where Bush and his family regularly worshipped in Houston, the choir sang "This is My Country," which was also sung at Bush's presidential inauguration in 1989. Those gathered also heard a prayer stressing the importance of service and selflessness that the president himself offered for the country at the start of his term.

There were rousing renditions of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Onward Christian Soldiers," and also some of Bush's country favorites. The Oak Ridge Boys recalled performing for him for decades — sometimes at the White House — and joked that Bush "fancied himself to be a good bass singer. He was not." They then sang "Amazing Grace," and Reba McEntire offered a musical version of "The Lord's Prayer."

Thursday's flavor was distinctly Texas, unlike days of previous Washington celebrations that had more of a national feel. In place of most federal dignitaries were top Houston athletes including the NFL Texans' defensive end J.J. Watt — displaying Bush's love for sports — and Chuck Norris, who played TV's "Walker, Texas Ranger."

Grandson George P. Bush, the only member of the political dynasty still holding elected office, as Texas land commissioner, used a eulogy to praise the man the younger generations called "gampy."

"He left a simple, yet profound legacy to his children, to his grandchildren and to his country: service," George P. Bush said.

The church's pastor, Rev. Russell Levenson, Jr., recalled the Bushes often attending services and offering to give up their seats to others on days when the church was particularly crowded.

"He was ready for heaven and heaven was ready for him," Levenson said of Bush's declining in health in recent years. He also suggested that when the former president died, he met his wife of 73 years in heaven and Barbara Bush playfully demanded "What took you so long?"

Indeed, the funeral occurred at the same church where services were held in April for Barbara Bush. That service is remembered for an emotional scene when the former president gazed from his wheelchair up at her casket, then shook hands with well-wishers.

Wednesday night, more than 11,000 people paid their respects as Bush lay in repose at the church all night.

Earlier Wednesday, at Washington National Cathedral in the nation's capital, there was high praise for the last of the presidents to have fought in World War II — and a hefty dose of humor about a man whose speaking delivery was once described as a cross between Mister Rogers and John Wayne. Three other former presidents and Donald Trump watched as George W. Bush eulogized his father as "the brightest of a thousand points of light."

The cathedral service was a tribute to a president, a patriarch and a faded political era that prized military service and public responsibility. It was laced with indirect comparisons to Trump but was not consumed by them, as speakers focused on Bush's public life and character — with plenty of cracks about his goofy side, too.

"He was a man of such great humility," said Alan Simpson, former Republican senator from Wyoming. Those who travel "the high road of humility in Washington, D.C.," he added pointedly, "are not bothered by heavy traffic."

Trump sat with his wife, a trio of ex-presidents and their wives, several of them sharp critics of his presidency and one of them, Hillary Clinton, his 2016 Democratic foe. Apart from courteous nods and some handshakes, there was little interaction between Trump and the others.

George W. Bush broke down briefly at the end of his eulogy while invoking the daughter his parents lost in 1953 his mother, who died in April. He took comfort in knowing "Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom's hand again."

It was a family that occupied the White House for a dozen years — the 41st president defeated after one term, the 43rd serving two. Jeb Bush stepped up to try to extend that run but fell short when Trump won the 2016 Republican primaries.

The elder Bush was "the last great-soldier statesman," historian Jon Meacham said in his eulogy, "our shield" in dangerous times.

But he also said that Bush, campaigning in a crowd in a department store, once shook hands with a mannequin. Rather than flushing in embarrassment, he simply cracked, "Never know. Gotta ask."

Meacham recounted how comedian Dana Carvey once said the key to doing an impersonation of Bush was "Mister Rogers trying to be John Wayne."

None of those words would be a surprise to Bush. Meacham read his eulogy to him, said Bush spokesman Jim McGrath, and Bush responded to it with the crack: "That's a lot about me, Jon."

PHOTOS: The Life Of Former President George H.W. Bush In Images

The congregation at the cathedral, filled with foreign leaders and diplomats, Americans of high office and others touched by Bush's life, rose for the arrival of the casket, accompanied by clergy of faiths from around the world. In their row together, Trump and former Presidents Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton stood with their spouses and all placed their hands over their hearts.

Simpson regaled the congregation with stories from his years as Bush's friend in Washington. More seriously, he recalled that when he went through a rough patch in the political game, Bush conspicuously stood by him against the advice of aides. "You would have wanted him on your side," he said.

Simpson said Bush "loved a good joke — the richer the better. And he threw his head back and gave that great laugh, but he never, ever could remember a punchline. And I mean never."

George W. Bush turned the humor back on the acerbic ex-senator, saying of the late president: "He placed great value on a good joke, so he chose Simpson to speak."

Meacham praised Bush's call to volunteerism — his "1,000 points of light" — placing it alongside Abraham Lincoln's call to honor "the better angels of our nature" in the American rhetorical canon. Meacham called those lines "companion verses in America's national hymn."

Trump had mocked "1,000 points of light" last summer at a rally, saying "What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out? And it was put out by a Republican, wasn't it?"

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.

On Wednesday morning, a military band played "Hail to the Chief" as Bush's casket was carried down the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where he had lain in state. Family members looked on as servicemen fired off a cannon salute.

His hearse was then driven in a motorcade to the cathedral ceremony, slowing in front of the White House. Bush's route was lined with people much of the way, bundled in winter hats and taking photos.

Waiting for his arrival inside, Trump shook hands with Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama, who greeted him by saying "Good morning." Trump did not shake hands with Bill and Hillary Clinton, who looked straight ahead.

Bill Clinton and Mrs. Obama smiled and chatted as music played. Carter was seated silently next to Hillary Clinton in the cavernous cathedral. Obama cracked up laughing at someone's quip. Vice President Mike Pence shook Carter's hand.

Trump tweeted Wednesday that the day marked "a celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life." Trump and his wife took their seats after the others, briefly greeting the Obamas seated next to them.

Bush's death makes Carter, also 94 but more than 100 days younger, the oldest living ex-president.

Following 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 transferred his remains at Joint Base Andrews for the flight home with members of his family.

Trump ordered the federal government closed Wednesday for a national day of mourning. Flags on public buildings are flying at half-staff for 30 days.

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