WASHINGTON — Soldiers, people in wheelchairs and long lines of other Americans filed through the hushed Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday to view George H.W. Bush’s casket and remember a president whose legacy included military victory half a world away and a landmark law affirming the rights of the disabled. Sully , Bush’s service dog, came by, too.
People filed into the Capitol throughout the chilly, overcast day to pay respects to the 41st president, a son and father of privilege now celebrated by everyday citizens for his common courtesies and depth of experience.
“He was so qualified, and I think he was just a decent man,” said Sharon Terry, touring Washington with friends from an Indianapolis garden club. Said her friend Sue Miller, also in line for the viewing: “I actually think I underestimated him when he was in office. My opinion of him went up seeing how he conducted himself as a statesman afterward.”
The CIA, too, honored Bush, the only spy chief to become president, as three agency directors past and present joined the public in the viewing.
In the midst of the period of mourning, first lady Melania Trump gave Laura Bush, one of her predecessors, a tour of holiday decorations at the White House, and the Trumps planned to visit the Bush family at the Blair House presidential guesthouse.
Although President Donald Trump will attend Bush’s national funeral service Wednesday, he is not among the eulogists announced by the Bush family, a list that includes the late president’s son, former President George W. Bush.
“The elegance & precision of the last two days have been remarkable!” Trump tweeted of the funeral ceremonies, which opened in Texas and came to Washington on Monday, with Bush lying in state at the Capitol until the Washington National Cathedral service. The Trumps visited Bush’s casket Monday evening.
Dignitaries came forward on Monday to honor the Texan whose service to his country extended three quarters of a century, from World War II through his final years as an advocate for volunteerism and relief for people displaced by natural disaster. President from 1989 to 1993, Bush died Friday at 94.
Not all the people who came for the viewing in a heavily Democratic city and suburbs were Bush supporters. They waited in line nonetheless.
“I’m just here to pay my respects,” said Jane Hernandez, a retired physician. “I wasn’t the biggest fan of his presidency, but all in all he was a good sincere guy doing a really hard job as best he could. And anybody who does that job deserves some respect.”
Fred Curry, one of the few African-Americans in line, is a registered Democrat from Hyattsville, Maryland, who voted for Bush in 1988, the election won by the one-term president. “Honestly I just liked him,” he said. “He seemed like a sincere and decent man and you couldn’t argue with his qualifications.”
Inside the Capitol, people in wheelchairs visited the casket alongside Sully, the 2-year-old Labrador retriever assigned to Bush after his wife, Barbara, died in April. Their presence was to commemorate Bush’s signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1990 law that, among its many provisions, required businesses that prohibit pets to give access to service dogs.
“After Mrs. Bush’s death, general companionship was a big part of Sully’s job,” John Miller, president and CEO of America’s VetDogs, said in a phone interview. “One of the things that I think was important to the president was the rest command, where Sully would rest his head on the president’s lap.”
Bob Dole, 95, an advocate of that legislation and the former Senate majority leader from Kansas, came in a wheelchair to honor his fellow World War II veteran. At the casket’s side, an aide helped Dole into a standing position. Once steadied, Dole saluted.
Trump’s relationship with the Bush family has been tense. The current president has mocked the elder Bush for his “thousand points of light” call to volunteerism, challenged his son’s legacy as president and trounced “low-energy” Jeb Bush in the Republican presidential primaries en route to office. The late President Bush called Trump a “blowhard.”
Those insults have been set aside, but the list of funeral service speakers marked the first time since Lyndon Johnson’s death in 1973 that a sitting president was not tapped to eulogize a late president. (Bill Clinton did so for Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush eulogized Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.)
Joining George W. Bush as eulogists Wednesday: Alan Simpson, the former senator and acerbic wit from Wyoming, Brian Mulroney, the former Canadian prime minister who also gave a eulogy for Reagan; and presidential historian Jon Meacham.
In an invocation opening Monday evening’s ceremony, the U.S. House chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J Conroy, praised Bush’s commitment to public service, from Navy pilot to congressman, U.N. ambassador, envoy to China and then CIA director before being elected vice president and then president.
“Here lies a great man,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, and “a gentle soul. … His legacy is grace perfected.”
Political combatants set aside their fights to honor a Republican who led in a less toxic era and at times found commonality with Democrats despite sharp policy disagreements. Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a past House speaker nominated for the post in the new Congress, exchanged a warm hug with George W. Bush and came away dabbing her face. Bush himself seemed to be holding back tears.
Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, placed wreaths in the short ceremony before the rotunda was opened to the public.
Sent off from Texas with a 21-gun salute, Bush’s casket was carried to Joint Base Andrews outside the capital city aboard an aircraft that often serves as Air Force One and designated “Special Air Mission 41” in honor of Bush’s place on the chronological list of presidents.
Although Bush’s funeral services are suffused with the flourishes accorded presidents, by his choice they will not include a formal funeral procession through downtown Washington.
After services in Washington, Bush will be returned to Houston to lie in repose at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church before burial Thursday at his family plot on the library grounds. 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.
Trump has ordered the federal government closed Wednesday for a national day of mourning. Flags on public buildings are flying at half-staff for 30 days.
Bush’s death also reduces membership in the ex-presidents’ club to four: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.