Americans mourned George H.W. Bush on Wednesday, glued to a national memorial service that remembered the 41st president the way he lived: with the contradictions of tears and laughter, pomp and humility, a warrior's resolve and a father's heart.
Bush's son, the 43rd president, eulogized him as 'a great and noble man' and war hero, but teared up at the thought of a heavenly reunion with his wife and their leukemia-stricken daughter who died in 1953 before her fourth birthday.
'In our grief, I just smile knowing that dad is hugging Robin and holding mom's hand again,' the younger Bush said at the National Cathedral in Washington.
The ceremony, packed with elements of kingly reverence, included moments of laughter as he seemed to swap jokes with an historian, a former Canadian prime minister and a former senator in eulogies separated by majestic musical tributes.
George W. buckled with grief as he called his dad 'the best father a son or daughter can have.'
'We're going to miss you. Your decency, sincerity and your kind soul will stay with us forever,' he said, fixing his gaze on a flag-draped casket. Rapturous applause followed, as much for father as for son.
George H.W. Bush died Friday at the age of 94. He spoke 11 years ago about the process of planning his own funeral, wondering if anyone of significance would come.
Heads of state and celebrities flew in by the dozen, along with every living former U.S. president and vice president.
Wednesday's once-in-a-generation funeral – at times both soul-searing and hilarious – was the centerpiece of four days of events including two Air Force One flights, a 70-mile train trip, three services and more than 30 hours lying in state under the cavernous dome of the U.S. Capitol.
Republicans and Democrats, an estimated 57,000 in all, lined up there for hours before paying their final respects in a hushed quiet that's rare in America's bustling legislative headquarters.
Ninety-five-year-old Bob Dole – a former senator and, like Bush, an undisputed World War II hero – made the most dramatic silent statement. He rose from his wheelchair for a moment, determined to stand just long enough to salute his fallen comrade.
George W. and Laura Bush surprised mourners Tuesday night, returning for a second visit hours after a polished and televised arrival ceremony.
Seeing a mother and child in the crowd, his eyes lit up and he was at once the all-smiles president Americans knew during the eight months before the 9/11 terror attacks.
He held the tiny girl aloft and posed for photos with his father's casket in the background, a tableau that spanned five generations and nearly a century of American history.
A 10-minute walk to the south was the office where George H.W. Bush began his national political career, a four-year stint in Congress during which he occupied the office space now belonging to New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries.
That preceded White House assignments as a special envoy to China and ambassador to the United Nations. Bush was later director of the CIA before spending eight years as Ronald Reagan's vice president.
In 1988 he became the first sitting VP in 150 years to succeed his boss in the Oval Office.
Bush will reach his final resting place Thursday, a plot on the grounds of his presidential library at Texas A&M University where Robin waits for him along with former first lady Barbara.
They were married for 73 years, a record among America's first couples that's unlikely ever to be broken.
The funeral procession to the cathedral followed the fanfare and pageantry of a departure from the Capitol, complete with a 21-gun salute, the fourth since Monday, booming over a quiet, damp Washington morning.
Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines saluted their former commander-in-chief. Mourners lined the streets and watched as a black Cadillac hearse bearing the Seal of the President of the United States arrived at a stately house of God.
D.C.'s biggest bells tolled as pallbearers representing every military service branch walked a somber cadence. Crosses and candles shared a procession with a single American flag. Alleluias rang out, led by a military chorus and the church's own choir including children too young to have known any national leader named Bush.
The surviving President Bush, now his family's most visible legacy, entered the cathedral last along with former first lady Laura Bush, taking his place with other family members in front pew across a well-worn aisle from President Donald Trump and every living former president.
He was seen fighting back tears as his father's remains left the Capitol. But a more stoic Bush stood at attention for his father along with more than 1,000 other black-clad Americans as men in dress uniforms gently placed the coffin at the altar.
Trump, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama sat wordlessly through nearly two hours of remembrances, a tribute to the man for whom they showed varying degrees of contempt and admiration while he was alive.
Trump has been consistently critical of the late Bush for his military adventurism and regime-change policies in the Persian Gulf and Panama, which he believes sacrificed too much American blood and treasure for minimal return.
He even mocked Bush's Thousand Points of Light volunteerism program this summer, claiming his 'Make America Great Again' slogan provided a better, more aspirational vision.
Following Bush's death, the current president treated Americans to a kinder, gentler Trump.
SPECIAL AIR MISSION 41: FINAL FLIGHT HOME
'We lost a president who truly was a wonderful person, a wonderful man, a great man,' he told reporters Saturday during the G20 summit in Argentina.
On Wednesday he proclaimed the cathedral service 'not a funeral' but 'a day of celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life.'
Trump didn't deliver a eulogy. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday that George W. had 'dibs' on the unusual occasion of a former president eulogizing a parent who had held the same office.
Even John Quincy Adams, America's 6th president and the only other to follow his father in the White House, didn't have that opportunity when John Adams, the 2nd president, died a few hours after Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1826.
In Washington, D.C. the younger Adams didn't get news that his father, 90, was at death's door until two days after his burial.
George W. Bush was able to hear his father's last words via telephone.
'I called him,' he recalled on Wednesday. 'I said, 'Dad, I love you. You've been a wonderful father'.'
'And the last words he would ever say on earth were, 'I love you too'.'
Bush, whose own tumultuous presidency was measured against his father's as it unfolded, said historians will be kind to his dad.
TRIBUTES TO A '20TH CENTURY FOUNDING FATHER'
'They will say that George H.W. Bush was a great president of the United States. A diplomat of unmatched skill. A commander in chief of formidable accomplishment,' he said from the pulpit.
'He showed me what it means to be a president who serves with integrity leads with courage and acts with love in his heart for the citizens of our country.'
George W. wove threads through stories of his personal life, his political career and his formative World War II service as the U.S. Navy's youngest pilot.
Speaking of the elder Bush's life-long love for Barbara Bush, who died in April, he said that 'all he really wanted to do was hold mom's hand again.'
Barbara would remind her children, he said, that their father was the only boy she had ever kissed.
'He laughed and cried with her. He was dedicated to her totally,' the younger George said.
Late in life the two would watch police show reruns with 'the volume on high. All the while holding mom's hand.'
His eulogy also touched on his father's devotion to Robin Bush despite losing her so young. He said he prayed to her every day and 'showed us how setbacks could strengthen.'
But like the other three speakers, George W. included lighter moments that drew laughter through tears.
'His short game was lousy,' he said, speaking of golf. 'He wasn't exactly Fred Astaire on the dance floor.'
'The man couldn't stomach vegetables, especially broccoli, and by the way, he passed these genetic defects on to us,' Bush quipped.
The late president's remains began the weekend in Houston. Family members accompanied the casket to Washington on the plane that typically serves as Air Force One, a gesture from Trump.
A return trip eight miles in the air aboard 'Special Mission 41' was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon after a slow drive past the White House on the way to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
After a second public viewing in Houston, Texans will say their farewells at an Episcopal service before Bush's coffin is hoisted aboard a specialized Union Pacific train car – in a Plexiglas-covered compartment – for a 2-1/2 hour trip to the university town of College Station.
A trio of eulogists from outside the Bush clan added color to Wednesday's service: Alan Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming; Brian Mulroney, the former Canadian prime minister who also spoke at Ronald Reagan's funeral; and presidential historian Jon Meacham, who wrote a Bush biography.
Meacham called the senior Bush 'America's last great soldier-statesman, a 20th Century founding father.'
'He stood in the breach in the cold war against totalitarianism. He stood in the breach in Washington against unthinking partisanship,' Meacham said. 'He stood in the breach against tyranny and discrimination. On his watch, a wall fell in Berlin.'
Meacham noted, too, Bush's signature on the Americans with Disabilities Act, saying 'doors across America opened' to millions as a result.
Like George Washington, John Adams and Harry Truman, Meacham said, Bush 'believed in causes larger than themselves.'
Meacham also made George W. Bush laugh.
Recalling the elder Bush campaigning furiously, he said the future president once grasped the hand of a department store mannequin by mistake. 'He said: "Never know. Gotta ask",' Meacham deadpanned.
He quoted Saturday Night Live comedian Dana Carvey explaining his success portraying the then-president, saying it was 'Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne.'
And chuckling along with the memory of 'a loving man with a big, vibrant, all-enveloping heart,' Meacham remembered Bush's self-deprecation at his own malapropisms and awkward turns of phrase: 'Fluency in English is not something I'm often accused of.'
NBC News reported after the service that Meacham had had the opportunity to read his eulogy to the ailing George H.W. Bush before he died.
After hearing it, Bush said: 'That's a lot about me, Jon.'
Mulroney praised Bush, a friend for decades, as a resolute and determined president whom foreign leaders respected.
CROWDS LINE THE STREETS OF DC AND THE COUNTRY COMES TO A STANDSTILL
'Every single head of government in the world knew that they were dealing with a gentleman, a genuine leader,' he said.
But he also 'had a delightful sense of humor and was a lot of fun,' Mulroney said.
Remembering Bush's first NATO meeting, he described a lengthy, plodding address by Iceland's leader.
'The smaller the country,' Bush told him later, 'the longer the speech.'
Retired Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, known as a jokester during his Washington years, had Bush the younger cracking broad grins and laughing.
He told a story that filled in a historical gap from the 1992 campaign, when George H.W. Bush was struggling amid low poll numbers and trying to save his hopes of a second term.
'Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff?' he asked a group of insurance workers in Dover, New Hampshire.
'You can't be. And we're blessed. So don't feel sorry for – don't cry for me, Argentina!'
'The press then wrote that he was finally losing his marbles,' Simpson recalled, talking about bush's sudden lapse into an Andrew Lloyd Webber lyric.
But he and Bush and their wives, he said, had attended a concert of Webber hits two nights earlier, and sang the 'Evita' tune all the way back to 1600 Avenue.
The ceremony drew both a who's-who list of global envoys and a handyman from the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
King Abdullah II and Queen Rania of Jordan, Britain's Prince Charles, Prince Abdulla bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Polish President Andrzej Duda all made the trip.
Rubbing shoulders with the dignitaries was Mike Lovejoy, the electrician and fix-it man who has worked at the family's summer estate since 1990 and says he was shocked and heartened to be asked to come.
Wednesday's public gaze that didn't fall on the Bushes landed on President Trump and his other predecessors, lined up in the same pew.
They alternatively grinned and closed their eyes in reflection of history's latest improbable but indispensable moment.
TRUMP, OBAMA, CLINTON AND CARTER UNITED BY GRIEF
Theresa May accused of 'concealing the facts' and misleading MPs
Detectives investigating James Donegan murder release CCTV
Tom Cruise urges to turn off motion smoothing on HD-ready TVs
Americans narrowly escape robbers with machetes in Kenya
Trump leave Bush's funeral before the casket exits the cathedral
The Apprentice: Team Typhoon's chocolate deemed 'sleazy' and 'sexist'
William and Kate arrive in Cyprus to thank British troops
Piers Morgan describes how Meghan Markle 'ghosted' him
Hillary Clinton ignores President Trump at George H.W. Bush's funeral
World's Weirdest Homes shows incredible floating house in Canada
Theresa May urges women to put up with smear test discomfort
George W. Bush tears up delivering late father's eulogy
Bill Clinton owed many of his successes to Bush's groundwork, including a NATO expansion, Middle East peace talks and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which historians view as an impossibility without Bush's optimistic cajoling in prior years.
Trump now views all three as failures of leadership, seeing weakness where modern Democrats see calculated restraint and humility.
Obama generally admired Bush as more Democratic than Republican, especially for his widely panned willingness to raise taxes and what he called a 'Hippocratic' approach to foreign policy. Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2011.
But America's first black president privately groused in his White House about Bush's appointment of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative African-American whom he believed undermined civil rights.
George H.W. Bush is the only former president Jimmy Carter hasn't swiped at during his post-presidency. Even Obama drew his ire for ordering drone strikes against Middle Eastern terrorists, and for failing to shutter the Guantanamo Bay military prison camp.
He lionized Bush on Saturday for his 'grace, civility, and social conscience.'
CLINTONS IGNORE TRUMPS AS THEY TAKE THEIR SEATS
THE FULL ORDER OF SERVICE