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George H.W. Bush dying: Washington luminaries gather for final farewell

Donald Trump has come face-to-face with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during an awkward moment at the funeral for former US President George H.W. Bush.

Mr Trump arrived at the Washington Cathedral with his wife Melania and was seated next to the Obamas, the Clintons and America’s oldest living former president, Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, who had initially not been expected to attend.

Mr and Mrs Obama shook hands with the Trumps, but Mrs Clinton stared straight ahead and made no movement to greet the first couple, nor did Mr Trump make any eye contact with his opponent from the 2016 election.

For his part, Mr Clinton held out his hand which Mr Trump either ignored or just didn’t see.

The Trump-Obama handshake marked the first direct interaction between the current president and his immediate predecessor since Inauguration Day 2017. Mr Trump has reportedly not spoken to Mrs Clinton or Mr Obama since that day.

media_cameraThe Trumps, the Obamas, and the Clintons made for an uncomfortable front row at George H.W. Bush’s funeral. Picture: AP

Prior to Mr Trump’s arrival, the Obamas and the Clintons had chatted happily in the front row, and had also greeted US Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen.

And on another lighter note, George W. Bush renewed friendly acquaintances with Michelle Obama, passing the former first lady a lolly as he did at John McCain’s funeral in August.

media_cameraThe current president and three of his predecessors. Picture: AFP
media_cameraGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) arrives for the funeral service for former US President George H.W. Bush. Picture: AFP

The uncomfortable reunion put Mr Trump together in the same pew with past White House residents who have given him decidedly critical reviews.

The late Mr Bush was the de facto chair of the modern incarnation of the president’s club, transcending contentious campaigns and party lines to bring together fractious personalities who share that rarefied experience.

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media_cameraFormer president George W. Bush greets the Trumps, the Obamas, and the Cllintons. Picture: AP

But the staid group of Oval Office occupants has been disturbed since Mr Trump’s election. And since his swearing-in, Mr Trump has spurned most contact with his predecessors — and they have snubbed him in return.

The Bushes had made it known to the White House months ago that, despite differences in policy and temperament, the late president wanted Mr Trump to attend the national service.

media_cameraGeorge W Bush shared a lighthearted moment with his father’s good friend, former senator Alan Simpson, whose eulogy brought the house down. Picture: AP

The ceremony’s tributes at times stood as an unspoken counterpoint to Mr Trump’s leadership, as historian Jon Meacham eulogised Mr Bush by recounting his life’s credo: “Tell the truth, don’t blame people, be strong, do your best, try hard, forgive, stay the course.”

George W. Bush added of his father: “He could tease and needle, but not out of malice.”

Mr Bush said his father “valued character over pedigree, and he was no cynic”.

“He’d look for the good in each person, and he usually found it,” Bush Jr said in his eulogy.

“The best father a son or daughter could ever have,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.

Indeed, the life and public service of the nation’s 41st president was celebrated with praise and humour at Washington National Cathedral as three former presidents looked on and a fourth — George W. Bush — eulogised his dad, the last president to fight in World War II.

media_cameraBarack and Michelle Obama speak as Bill and Hillary Clinton greet US Vice President Mike Pence. Picture: AFP

The congregation, populated with foreign leaders and diplomats, Americans of high office, and others touched by Mr Bush’s life, rose for the arrival of the casket, accompanied by clergy of faiths from around the world.

Mr Bush was “the last great-soldier statesman,” Mr Meacham said in his eulogy, “our shield” in dangerous times. On a light note, he added that Mr Bush, campaigning in a crowd in a department store, once shook hands with a mannequin. Rather than flushing in embarrassment, he simply cracked, “You never know.”

media_cameraDonald Trump shook hands with the Obamas but did not acknowledge the Clintons. Picture: AP

Indeed, memories of Mr Bush’s underappreciated sense of humour drew laughter and brought smiles to the sorrowful mourning of the death of American’s 41st president.

The younger Bush, got in on the act, telling the packed cathedral that his father was no Fred Astaire on the dance floor and couldn’t stomach vegetables, especially broccoli. While president, the elder Bush famously declared his dislike of broccoli.

Mr Bush said his father also shared jokes via email with his circle of friends. “His grading system for the quality of the joke was classic George Bush: The rare sevens and eights were considered huge winners, most of them off- colour,” the younger Bush said.

media_cameraFormer president George W. Bush greeted the three other former presidents as well as President Donald Trump. Picture: AFP

He said his dad really got the last laugh of the day because he chose former senator Alan Simpson to be one of the people to speak at Wednesday’s ceremony. “He placed great value on a good joke, so he chose Simpson to speak,” Mr Bush said.

Mr Simpson said his friend never lost his sense of humour.

“He had a very serious flaw known by all close to him: He loved a good joke — the richer the better,” Mr Simpson said.

“And he threw his head back and gave that great laugh, but he never, ever could remember a punchline. And I mean never.

media_cameraGeorge W. Bush became emotional when remembering his father. Picture: AFP

“Humour is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life,” Mr Simpson continued. “He never hated anyone. He knew what his mother and my mother always knew: hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”

The national funeral service caps three days of remembrance in Washington before Mr Bush is buried in Texas on Thursday (local time). A military band played “Hail to the Chief” as the casket of the 41st president was carried down the US Capitol steps in a solemn procession, with members of the Bush family watching and a cannon salute. Military pallbearers carried the casket up the steps to the cathedral.

media_cameraGeorge H.W. Bush’s coffin is carried from the Washington Cathedral after his funeral service. Picture: AFP

Aside from the four living ex-presidents, one king attended (Jordan), one queen (Jordan), two princes (Britain, Bahrain), Germany’s chancellor and Poland’s president, among representatives of more than a dozen countries.

Mr Trump tweeted on Wednesday that he was “looking forward to being with the Bush family,” calling the day “a celebration for a great man who has led a long and distinguished life.”

Mr Bush’s death reduces membership in the ex-presidents’ club to four: Jimmy Carter, Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

media_cameraGeorge W. Bush with his wife Laura and brother Jeb during the service. Picture: AFP

Mr Bush died Friday in Houston at age 94.

His remains have been flown to Houston to lie in repose before a private burial on Thursday at his family plot on the presidential library grounds at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Originally published as Trump’s awkward moment at Bush funeral

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