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Leaders praise humility, kindness of George H.W. Bush as he lies in state

Former President George H. W. Bush became the 32d person to lie in state beneath the Capitol rotunda.

Former President George W. Bush, Laura Bush, left, and other family members watch as the flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a joint services military honor guard to lie in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
Former President George W. Bush, Laura Bush, left, and other family members watch as the flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a joint services military honor guard to lie in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.Read moreAlex Brandon/Pool

WASHINGTON — The casket of President George Herbert Walker Bush was laid on a platform in the rotunda of the Capitol on Monday afternoon in a solemn ceremony honoring his decades of service as a Navy combat pilot, congressman, vice president, and president.

Vice President Pence, senators and House members from both parties, Supreme Court justices and Cabinet officials past and present gathered to pay homage to Bush, whose death Friday, less than a month after a rancorous midterm election, reminded many of a less divisive time in American politics.

A military honor guard carried the 41st president's flag-draped coffin up the steps of the Capitol's west front as the sun set on an unusually warm December day, the pallbearers stepping carefully past members of the Bush family waiting on the top landing, including his eldest son, the 43rd president, George W. Bush; former first lady Laura Bush; and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his wife, Columba.

Bush became the 32nd person to lie in state under the Capitol dome. His coffin rested on the platform that once held President Abraham Lincoln's casket. The same honor was bestowed on Sen. John McCain in August. Remembrances of both men centered on themes of dignity and honor, and political figures who showed respect to their political opponents and received it in turn.

"Throughout his life of service, President Bush personified grace," House Speaker Paul Ryan said before those gathered. "He reached the heights of power with uncommon humility."

Emotions played across the faces of Jeb and George W. Bush during the ceremony. They followed along as the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club sang "America the Beautiful." Senate and House leaders from both parties, along with Pence, stepped forward as soldiers placed wreaths around the casket. Ambassadors streamed past, many bowing toward the coffin.

Pence hailed Bush's modesty, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reminded those gathered of the many ways the former president served during his 94 years: aviator, U.N. ambassador, envoy to China, and CIA director before becoming vice president and president. "He kept us on course," McConnell said.

A funeral is planned at the National Cathedral on Wednesday, with President Trump and all four living former presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W. Bush — expected to attend in a display of national unity and mourning.

On Monday, Trump and his wife, Melania, visited the Rotunda around 8:30 p.m. to briefly pay their respects. Trump saluted as Melania placed her hand on her heart.

Trump, who was excluded from McCain's services, has praised Bush despite past clashes with the family.

People who had met Bush almost uniformly recalled him Monday as humble and gracious — as personified by the hand-written letters he sent to virtually anyone who helped him, powerful or not.

"I've walked through enough kitchens with him, because vice presidents and presidents don't go through the front, where as a matter of course he insisted on greeting and saying hello and taking photographs," former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge said in an interview. "The respect he had for world leaders and the people in the kitchen, it was the same."

Ridge became friends with Bush after leading his 1980 presidential campaign in Erie County. He said the traits that mourners and leaders have praised in Bush are ones that he hopes people would value more now.

"You like to think that maybe this gives us an opportunity to rethink what a priority it should be for us in the future to insist that our leaders reflect these qualities as well — the humaneness, the compassion, the respect for institutions, the respect for legitimate differences of opinion," Ridge said.

Those who knew him said Bush gave off genuine kindness. Bill Palatucci, who ran Bush's campaign in New Jersey in 1988, recalled the then-vice president getting down on his hands and knees to join Palatucci's 4-year-old daughter and other children coloring campaign posters. Few other politicians would do the same, Palatucci said.

"He was just the consummate uniter," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based Republican strategist who worked on the Ronald Reagan campaign when Reagan defeated Bush for the GOP presidential nomination in 1980.

When Bush joined the Reagan ticket as the vice presidential nominee, Gerow said, there were hard feelings among aides who had spent months competing, but not from the man who had lost.

"He had been our rival," Gerow recalled, but Bush was as "gracious and kind to the folks who had been on the other team as much as he had been to the people who had been with him from the start."

He said that trait trailed Bush into the White House, pointing to his work to build a coalition for the first Gulf War and his habit of sending gracious thank-you notes to all types of people who helped him. Bush even left one for the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton, telling the Democrat he was "rooting hard for you" as he took office.

Gerow still has several notes from Bush from when he staffed visits to Pennsylvania. In one instance, Gerow worked on a Bush trip to Bethlehem during the 1980 general election campaign. Early one morning before the event, Bush gathered some of the young aides for a run through Lehigh University's campus.

"He was always trying to bring people closer to him and use the things we had in common to do that," Gerow said, remembering the president, a former baseball player, as a tall, lanky runner.

Bush, however, was sharply criticized during his political years for advancing an infamous attack ad on Democratic rival Michael S. Dukakis during the 1988 presidential race. The Republican's allies ran an ad based on "Willie" Horton, a convicted criminal who raped a woman while on furlough from a prison in Massachusetts, where Dukakis was governor. It was seen as an attempt to stoke racial fears for political advantage.

In office, Bush was widely hailed as respectful, even toward opponents, and in later years formed a close partnership with Clinton, despite their clash in the 1992 election. Years later they raised money together for disaster relief and became the honorary chairs of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, founded after Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot and gravely wounded in 2011.

"His character and his the way he presented himself was always respectful of the office and always respectful of the people that he was dealing with," said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the institute.

She pointed to his decision to break his "no new taxes" pledge to cut a deal with Democrats, even though it hurt his political standing.

Michael Smerconish, the radio host and Inquirer columnist from Bucks County, was a freshman at Lehigh during Bush's visit there, and remembered gathering people from his dorm to serve as drivers in the motorcade. He later served as an intern and advance staffer, helping arrange Bush's travels.

"He had manners. That's not something we often say about people today, especially public servants, shame," Smerconish wrote in an email. "He was a privileged guy who could have done anything — or nothing — and he choose to serve his country."

Several people praised the way Bush handled defeat — including losses to Reagan in 1980 and Clinton in 1992.

Ridge remembered election night in 1994, after Bush had left office. Ridge was elected Pennsylvania governor that night, and George W. Bush was elected governor of Texas. But Jeb Bush lost the Florida governor's race.

"He said, 'I know what it is to lose, so I'm going down to Florida to be with Jeb,'" Ridge recalled. "That's who he was."