HOUSTON — At the Episcopal church that has been her spiritual home for more than 50 years, the former first lady Barbara Pierce Bush was celebrated at her funeral as one of the most beloved political matriarchs in American history.
Mrs. Bush, the wife of the 41st president and the mother of the 43rd, died on Tuesday in the bedroom of her home in Houston. She was 92, and took her last breaths holding the hand of her husband of 73 years, former President George Bush.
As her silver coffin lay beneath a parchment in the center aisle of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, some of the most powerful and famous political figures in the United States — including four of the five living former presidents — gathered to honor a woman who carried her own power and fame lightly.
“We learned to strive to be genuine and authentic by the best role model in the world,” Mrs. Bush’s son, Jeb Bush, the former two-term governor of Florida, told mourners in his eulogy. The family called her Bar, Mother, Ganny, the Silver Fox and, notably, the Enforcer, as she used her wit, humor and tough love to raise five children, 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
“She called her style a benevolent dictatorship,” Jeb Bush added, “but honestly it wasn’t always benevolent.”
Jon Meacham, a presidential historian, said in his eulogy that he once asked Mrs. Bush’s husband, the former president, if he knew early on how resilient his wife would be. He and Mrs. Bush had met shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, at a dance in Greenwich, Conn. She was 16. He was 17.
“She’s the rock of the family, the leader of the family,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Meacham. “I kind of float above it all.”
Nearly 8,000 people, from the rich and the famous to the working-class and the anonymous, came to St. Martin’s for a public viewing on Friday and the private funeral on Saturday.
From noon to midnight on Friday, more than 6,200 people paid their respects at the viewing, filing past her closed coffin and pausing just long enough to bow their heads or make the sign of the cross. On Saturday, about 1,500 people attended the funeral, under the watch of hundreds of local, state and federal law enforcement officers.
The former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George Bush attended, but not the current occupant of the White House, President Trump, whom Mrs. Bush had criticized in television interviews during the 2016 presidential campaign. White House officials said Mr. Trump would not attend “to avoid disruptions due to added security, and out of respect for the Bush family and friends attending the service.”
Former President Jimmy Carter and Eleanor Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady, were also not present; a spokeswoman said that Mr. Carter would be on a private trip overseas and that Mrs. Carter was recovering from recent surgery.
Three former first ladies — Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton — joined the current one, Melania Trump, at St. Martin’s on Saturday. Even at the funeral for a woman who famously said she left the politics to her husband, the imagery was impossible to ignore in this moment of bitter divisions in American political life. In a single front pew, Mrs. Trump sat shoulder to shoulder with the Obamas and the Clintons to pay tribute to a Bush family eminence.
Amid the splendor of the scene — a white-robed choir filling the cavernous Gothic-style cathedral with “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” — the recollections of those close to her repeatedly brought the setting back down to earth.
“What an interesting thing to be a confidant of a woman who has no secrets,” Mrs. Bush’s pastor, the Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr., the rector of St. Martin’s, said in his homily. “What you saw was what you got.”
Mr. Levenson recalled the day he and Mrs. Bush were walking together on the beach in Kennebunkport, Me.
“Barbara was washing off her own shoes, and a fellow came up to her and said, ‘Hey, you look a lot like Barbara Bush,’” Mr. Levenson told the audience. “Without missing a beat, Barbara just said, ‘Yes, I hear that a lot.”
In the church were not only Bushes and Clintons, but Kennedys, Nixons, Fords and Johnsons, including Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy; Tricia Nixon Cox, the daughter of former President Richard M. Nixon; Susan Ford Bales, the daughter of former President Gerald Ford; and Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, the daughters of former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
They were joined by hundreds of other dignitaries, including Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas; two former vice presidents, Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle; the former British prime minister John Major; and the former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney.
The coffin was wheeled out of the church by eight of Mrs. Bush’s grandsons, who served as pallbearers. She was to be buried more than 90 miles northwest in College Station, in a private service on the grounds of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. She was to be laid to rest beside her daughter Robin, who died of leukemia at the age of 3 in 1953.
Mrs. Bush’s wit did not wane as she approached the end of her life.
Days before her death, Mr. Levenson, Mrs. Bush’s pastor, arrived at the Bush home in the Tanglewood section of Houston late Saturday afternoon. Mrs. Bush had gone upstairs to bed. Mr. Levenson walked up the stairs to pray with her.
“I knocked on the door and came in,” Mr. Levenson said in an interview. “I said, ‘Bar, it’s Russ.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m not checking out today.’”
In her last days and even hours, Mrs. Bush appeared to be surrounded by her two favorite things as she lay on her bed — her family and her books. Friends, relatives and medical assistants read to Mrs. Bush, a longtime advocate of adult and child literacy. They read to her from the Bible and from her book about her late English springer spaniel, Millie. Mr. Levenson read from the Book of Psalms, and then a couple of chapters from “Little Women.”
“‘Pride and Prejudice’ is actually her favorite book,” Mr. Levenson said. “I was looking for that as I was going through her library downstairs, and I thought that was a good runner-up.”
On Saturday, after he prayed with Mrs. Bush, Mr. Levenson stepped outside the bedroom, shut the door and was talking to her medical aides when he heard Mrs. Bush call out. Mr. Levenson went back to the door.
“I said, ‘Bar, are you ok?’ And she said, ‘Yes. But tell him I adore him.’”
He relayed the message to Mr. Bush, the first and only boy, she often said with pride, she had ever kissed.
Source: New York Times