A military band played “Hail to the Chief,” cannons sang out a 21-gun salute and the presidential jet took to the sky, lifting former President George H.W. Bush away from Washington one last time.
The capital gave a solemn but fervent farewell Wednesday to the 41st president, whose death Friday at 94 launched a week of commemorations for a man acclaimed as one of the most decent to hold the White House, and at a particularly consequential time for the nation’s history.
“He stood in the breach in the Cold War against totalitarianism. He stood in the breach in Washington against unthinking partisanship. He stood in the breach against tyranny and discrimination. And on his watch, a wall fell in Berlin, a dictator’s aggression did not stand and doors across America opened to those with disabilities,” Jon Meacham, a Bush biographer, eulogized at Washington National Cathedral.
The service was the capstone to three days of mourning in Washington for Mr. Bush, giving thousands of residents and tourists a chance to stream by his casket as it lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
Still more lined the streets Wednesday to watch the Cadillac hearse with presidential seals carry the late president through the city, going down Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Lafayette Park one last time.
That stretch is now closed to everyone but presidential traffic, though it was very much open during Mr. Bush’s presidency, a symbol of how open Washington used to be.
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It took an act of domestic terrorism several years after Mr. Bush left office — the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — to shut down the street, an early harbinger of what would become the terrorism-hardened streets and buildings of the 21st century.
Mr. Meacham said Mr. Bush was a bridge between the Cold War era and those years, calling him “a 21st century founding father.”
“An imperfect man, he left us a more perfect union,” the biographer told the Bush family, President Trump and all the other living men who have occupied the White House, and hundreds of dignitaries who came to pay respect.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson said the late president’s epitaph should be the single letter “L” for loyalty to his country, his family, the institutions of government and his friends.
“One of nature’s noble men,” Mr. Simpson said.
Despite the inherent solemnity of the day, the late president’s humor shone through.
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George W. Bush, his son and the 43rd president, said his father was part of an ongoing email chain of jokes with friends and had a grading system for them: “The rare sevens and eights were considered huge winners, most of them off-color.”
The younger Mr. Bush recalled his father’s zeal for each day — “He was born with just two settings: Full throttle, then sleep” — and his large heart for those around him.
“To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light,” the son said.
The Bush family has been front and center this week, capturing some of the spotlight the family occupied for the better part of the past four decades.
They sat in the front pews on one side of the cathedral, while Mr. Trump and former Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and their wives sat in the opposite pews — an extraordinary lineup of people who have viciously battled over the past few years.
When Mr. Trump arrived, he greeted Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, with handshakes but did not proceed down the line to the Clintons or Carters.
He didn’t have a speaking role and kept a low profile for the day, leaving the focus on the Bush family.
“This is not a funeral, this is a day of celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life. He will be missed!” Mr. Trump posted on Twitter.
The president declared Wednesday a day of mourning and gave federal employees a holiday.
Some of them were among the well-wishers who lined the streets to see No. 41 on his last motorcade to Joint Base Andrews, the presidential airport that was so familiar to Mr. Bush during his 12 years as vice president and then as president.
In Texas, the presidential aircraft, dubbed Special Air Mission 41, did a flyby of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station.
A funeral will be held Thursday, and Mr. Bush will be buried at the library next to Barbara Bush, his wife of 73 years, who passed away earlier this year.
George W. Bush said his father is now holding his wife’s hand again, and also hugging their daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953 at age 3.
The son said his father prayed every day for Robin.
Mr. Meacham, in his eulogy, recalled an experience Mr. Bush had as vice president, visiting a cancer ward in Krakow, Poland, where a small boy also suffering from leukemia wanted to greet him.
Mr. Meacham recounted what Mr. Bush wrote in his diary that night: “My eyes flooded with tears. And behind me was a bank of television cameras. And I thought, ‘I can’t turn around. I can’t dissolve because of personal tragedy, in the face of the nurses that give of themselves every day.’
“So I stood there, looking at this little guy, tears running down my cheek, hoping he wouldn’t see. But if he did, hoping he’d feel that I loved him.”
“That was the real George H.W. Bush,” Mr. Meacham said. “A loving man with a big, vibrant, all-enveloping heart.”
Willie Geist, a news anchor for MSNBC, said Mr. Meacham told him he read the eulogy to Mr. Bush before he died.
Mr. Geist reported: “After hearing his own eulogy, President Bush said, characteristically: ‘That’s a lot about me, Jon.’”
⦁ Dave Boyer contributed to this report.