George H.W. Bush Funeral: Remembering The 41st President At The National Cathedral

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Friends, colleagues and the family of President George Herbert Walker Bush are memorializing him this hour at the Washington National Cathedral. Among the attendees are all former living presidents of the United States, Bush's son. Former President George W. Bush led the family down the aisle of the cathedral. When he arrived at the front row, he shook the hand of all the presidents, including the current President Donald Trump.

Joining us now in studio, NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley and senior correspondent Ron Elving. Thanks to both of you for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So speaking now, eulogizing President Bush, is the former prime minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney. Ron, he and President Bush became close during their time in office.

ELVING: Yes. Brian Mulroney actually corresponded with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the first. And that's quite a space of time. But he was popular enough in Canada to have that long a tenure, even in a system that can sometimes be a little bit more slippery for a prime minister than a presidency for an American president. He liked George H.W. Bush, and that was evident at the time. And it's evident in the remarks that he's made here this morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Carlos Salinas, the former president of Mexico, is also in attendance. He only gets one term in their system. But - like George H.W. Bush. But so all three partners who negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement are represented. And, of course, that's the agreement that just last Friday, President Trump signed the successor to, the USMCA.

MARTIN: Right. So we've been hearing a lot about that and that part of President Bush's legacy. Moments ago, we heard from President Bush's biographer, Jon Meacham, writer and historian. And he had a lot of memorable lines. At one point, he was talking about President Bush as a family man, who he was in his family dynamic.

And he said this quote. "If you were soaring, he would rush to celebrate your success." And it was so notable, at that moment, George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, sitting next to each other, turned to one another and gave these big, emotional smiles of recognition, of resonance of that moment. He was a father who supported both these sons who followed in his footsteps. Scott?

HORSLEY: And grandchildren, who are following now. We've heard readings already during this service from three of George H.W. Bush's granddaughters. So yeah, the linchpin of a big political dynasty.

MARTIN: There was a moment of levity, a few of them. I mean, this is such a somber occasion, as it should be. But Jon Meacham made an effort to point out the lighter side of President Bush's personality. He was a plucky guy. He was a funny guy. He had a wry wit. We've got some tape of this moment. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNERAL SERVICE)

JON MEACHAM: Fluency in English, President Bush once remarked, is something that I'm often not accused of. Looking ahead, to the '88 election, he observed, inarguably, it's no exaggeration to say that the undecideds could go one way or the other.

(LAUGHTER)

MEACHAM: And late in his presidency, he allowed that, we're enjoying sluggish times but we're not enjoying them very much.

(LAUGHTER)

ELVING: You know, I think that reminded a lot of people of some of the humor of Dwight Eisenhower, those who go back that far. And he used to say things that were sort of unintentionally funny in that respect. But Meacham also told a great story about George H.W. Bush campaigning and shaking hands like mad with everyone he saw in a department store, until he had finally found himself grasping the hand of a mannequin. And when he realized his mistake, he apparently looked up and said, well, got to ask.

MARTIN: Got to ask. You don't want to take any vote for granted. I mean, in the stories we've been hearing, though, this was a man who didn't so much love the politicking of politics, did he?

HORSLEY: No. He saw politics as a means to an end. He wanted to be of service, and in order to serve and to lead, you have to get elected. And a number of the commentators over this past week have pointed to the gap between the way in which he campaigned, which was often sort of bare knuckles and tough, and the way he governed, which was much more conciliatory and consensus-oriented.

And that caused problems for him sometimes, that gap. I mean, the gap between, read my lips, no new taxes on the campaign trail, and then his actions as president, where he did agree to raise taxes in a way that helped set the stage for the balanced budgets of the late '90s. That gap cost him in his re-election bid, along with the recession. But he was not somebody who, I think, loved the rough-and-tumble of the political game, but he was enough of a competitor that he was certainly willing to play it.

MARTIN: But, Ron, this was a man who managed the aftermath, a very complicated aftermath, of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He stood in the breach of that moment, as Jon Meacham pointed out. He was someone who opened doors for Americans with disabilities. There are things that he did he felt proud of, and thus, his loss to Bill Clinton was devastating. How did he make sense of it?

ELVING: Yes. He thought that he had done all the right things, particularly with respect to the Persian Gulf War, both in deciding to organize an international coalition to push Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait, and then also in having the forbearance and the restraint not to try to press on to Baghdad and push Saddam Hussein out of power.

He thought he had done the right thing in both of those respects. He thought he had done the right thing with respect to the budget agreement that Scott referred to. And certainly, in the long-run, that was borne out over the following decade. And I think that he also believed that all of the things that he did sign - Americans With Disabilities Act and environmental legislation in 1990 - all those things were ideas whose time had come.

He did veto the Family and Medical Leave Act. In fact, I think he did it twice. That was because he had decided that was an idea that hadn't quite ripened, and perhaps we were a little too deep into the 1992 political season at that particular point. But he did try to balance between the political imperatives that we saw him yield to, oftentimes in campaigning, and the larger question of what should a president be, what should a leader of the United States be trying to achieve?

MARTIN: I mean, we've heard many people talking about him, remembering him as perhaps the president for that particular moment. And Jon Meacham said it perhaps best at the end of his eulogy, describing him as an imperfect man who left us a more perfect nation. Scott?

HORSLEY: Well, and his biographer referred to his story and ours. With any president, his story is tied up in the national story. And for an internationalist president like George H.W. Bush, it's tied up in the world story. And I think we heard Senator Mitchell say earlier this morning, another Mainer, that his example's not only one to think about but perhaps to try to live up to.

MARTIN: All right. We've been watching live coverage of the funeral of President George Herbert Walker Bush at the National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C.

Scott Horsley, Ron Elving, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.