Presidents pay their respects as Barbara Bush is laid to rest

The nation bid farewell to Barbara Pierce Bush, the former First Lady who holds a unique place in American history, as her Houston funeral service got underway at noon Saturday.

Bush, the wife of the country’s 41st president and the mother of its 43rd, stands alone with Abigail Adams at the center of such a political dynasty.

Her private funeral at the Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral, the nation’s largest Episcopalian church, was thronged with 1,500 invited guests.

Sitting First Lady Melania Trump attended without her husband — and former first ladies Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, along with Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, joined her.

Busloads of dignitaries arrived at the cathedral ahead of the somber ceremony. Former first family members like Caroline Kennedy and Chelsea Clinton attended, along with former Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords of Arizona, retired Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, and officials who served in the Bush administrations.

President Trump, who remained away from the services in keeping with presidential tradition, tweeted that he would be watching televised coverage from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

“Today, my thoughts and prayers are with the entire Bush family,” he posted at 11:45 am. “In memory of First Lady Barbara Bush, there is a remembrance display located at her portrait in the Center Hall of the White House.”

The large Bush family — she and husband George had six children, 14 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren — were to take prominent roles in the ceremony, acting as readers and pallbearers, Son Jeb, the former governor of Florida, was to deliver one of three eulogies.

Barbara Bush was known for her mild, grandmotherly looks and steel spine. She was an unobtrusive but fiercely protective political partner for her husband George H.W. Bush, whose lengthy career in public service included stints as U.N. ambassador, CIA director, two terms as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, and a single term in the White House, from 1989 to 1993.

“Please notice — hairdo, makeup, designer dress,” she said at an inauguration event in 1989. “Look at me good this week, because it’s the only week.”

Born Barbara Pierce in New York City, Bush grew up in well-to-do Rye, N.Y. Her 73-year marriage began when she was still a teenager. She and George met at a dance in 1941 when both were in high school.

On their first date, she wrote in her 1994 memoir, George “begged his mother to let him use the Oldsmobile that night because it had a radio and their other car did not. He was so afraid we would sit in stony silence and have nothing to say to each other. For years he has teased me that there was no silence that night and I haven’t stopped talking since.”

They carried on their romance by letter for four more years, as he became a Navy flier during World War II.

She studied at Smith College while he served in the Pacific. She dropped out after her freshman year. ““I was just interested in George,” she said.

Two weeks after he returned to the US on Christmas Eve 1944, after being shot down by the Japanese, they were married – at ages 19 and 20.

“In wartime, the rules change,” she wrote later. “You don’t wait until tomorrow to do anything.”

They moved 11 times in their first six years as George attended Yale, then launched his career in Texas.

Devastated by the death of daughter Robin, 3, of leukemia in 1953, her hair went prematurely white at age 28.

Bush’s persona as a traditional, retiring political wife disappeared behind the scenes, staffers said. “She definitely is the institutional memory of slights,” one said in 1992.

“Look out, the Silver Fox is really mad at you,” the affable President Bush would often warn reporters if they had earned his wife’s ire.

Yet in 1988 in New Orleans. she became the first candidate’s spouse to address the national convention that nominated her husband,” establishing a tradition that continues to this day.

As First Lady, she visited a Washington home for AIDS-afflicted infants and hugged its director — who was himself an AIDS patient. The gesture, made at a time when fear of the illness was rampant, made headlines.

“She always took her duties seriously,” son Gorge wrote. “But never herself.”

Bush will be buried at her daughter Robin’s side at the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, later today.

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