WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sometimes, saying goodbye is surprisingly emotional.
It was a long wait, more than an hour and a half as we joined thousands of others to honor and remember former President George H.W. Bush, whose casket was laying in state in the U.S. Capitol until this (Wednesday) morning.
The easy chatter shared as the seemingly endless line of people — some in suits and ties, others in military uniforms and even more bundled to stay warm — moved from outside the Capitol inside through a series of back-and-forth corridors to the Capitol Rotunda. It’s there the casket of Bush, who died Friday, is wrapped in an American flag, set atop the same pine board catafalque that in 1865 held the coffin of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
The silence was audible. Some simply walked slowly past, heads bowed. Others lingered, standing along the roped-off corridor around the coffin.
One man, wearing a “Bush 88” campaign pin, was among those who paused, silently whispering his own thoughts. A few saluted. Young children passed looking confused. Earlier, their teacher said she cancelled a previously planned Smithsonian outing to, instead, see the casket. “They’ll thank me someday for this year,” she smiled.
Nearly 50 years ago I said goodbye to another former president, Dwight Eisenhower. It was 1969 and I was a young sailor newly arrived in Washington, D.C., living in an apartment only four blocks away from Capitol Hill. Memories are uncertain, but surviving fragments include joining a line of mourners. We mostly waited outdoors before climbing the East Capitol steps and entered through halls before reaching the rotunda, where — as we did Tuesday — filed around “Ike’s” casket.
It was an era before tight security, a time when Capitol visitors could simply enter its remarkable halls and wander, mostly, freely.
Decades ago I was a Navy journalist. This time around I’m in the nation’s Capitol joining my daughter, Molly, a member of the Willamette National Forest’s Tree Team. She helped select the five finalists for the Capitol Christmas Tree. The tree she and others favored, and endorsed by the Capitol architect, sits on the Capitol’s West Lawn.
Tree-lighting ceremonies originally scheduled for tonight (Wednesday night) have since been reset for Thursday night. The 80-foot noble fir is only the second from Oregon to serve as the Capitol Christmas Tree.
It’s been a week of activities, with an Oregon Breakfast featuring Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley at the Library of Congress and snacks and sweets at the Department of Agriculture sandwiched around the visit to view Bush’s casket.
Some activities are fun. But passing alongside Bush’s casket was emotional. The atmosphere was somber and respectful. Members of four armed services stood solemnly, especially fitting for a man who, unlike presidents who followed him in the White House, served in the Armed Forces — and with distinction.
Bush’s casket was moved from the Capitol Rotunda this (Wednesday) morning for funeral services and speeches at the Washington National Cathedral. His death wasn’t completely unexpected, at age 94 he had lived an amazing life.
In tributes and eulogies George H.W. Bush is being remembered as a family man, a war hero, a leader who governed the nation in troubled times, a politician who put “the common good above political gain.”
Saying goodbye to George H.W. Bush is also saying goodbye to a man I respected and to an era that no longer exists.