HOUSTON (AP) — Barbara Bush was the “first lady of the greatest generation.”
Historian Jon Meacham bestowed the title on Barbara Bush while speaking to former presidents, ambassadors and hundreds of other mourners inside the nation’s largest Episcopal church during her funeral Saturday. He recalled the former first lady’s quick wit and her devotion to promoting literacy, bringing awareness to AIDS patients and to her husband of 73 years.
Former President George H.W. Bush., the historian noted, was the “only boy she ever kissed.”
Meacham, who wrote a 2015 biography on George H.W. Bush, joined some 1,500 people on a gray, rainy Saturday to honor the wife of the 41st president and the mother of the 43rd. The private funeral filled St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston a day after more than 6,000 people came through the church to pay their respects during a public viewing.
Her son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, joked during his eulogy that his mother called her style of mothering him and his siblings “a benevolent dictatorship — but honestly it wasn’t always benevolent.” He emphasized how she believed in the power of laughter and that joy should be shared.
He choked up when saying his mother — known for her self-deprecating remarks about her wrinkles and gray hair — was “beautiful” until the very end. He said he felt priviliged that he had a “front row” seat to the incredible love story that his parents shared.
His father, George H.W. Bush, was helped into the cavernous sanctuary with a wheelchair behind Jeb and his son former President George W. Bush. He laughed as Meacham and others recalled his wife’s wicked sense of humor. Barbara and George Bush were married longer than any other presidential couple.
A eulogy was also given by Susan Baker, wife of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who said her longtime friend was “the secret sauce of this extraordinary family.”
Seated near the front of the church in the same pew were two other former presidents — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — along with their wives and current first lady Melania Trump.
Barbara Bush’s granddaughters delivered readings during the service and her grandsons served as pallbearers as the casket was later wheeled out of the church. George H.W. Bush followed in his wheelchair, pushed by son George W. Bush, shaking hands with some of the people in the pews. In his lap, he carried his glasses and a copy of the funeral program.
Barbara Bush died, with her husband by her side, at their home in Houston on Tuesday at age 92.
Flags were flown at half-mast as the service began as the choir sang “My Country Tis of Thee.” The church was adorned with sprays of yellow garden roses, yellow snap dragons, antique hydrangeas and other flowers.
Other guests included former Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, and professional golfer Phil Mickelson, along with Karl Rove, and other former White House staff. Many were seen embracing in the church before the service.
President Donald Trump isn’t attending to avoid security disruptions and “out of respect for the Bush family and friends attending the service,” according to the White House. He released a statement Saturday saying his “thoughts and prayers” are “with the entire Bush family.”
A burial will follow at the Bush Library at Texas A&M University, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Houston. The burial site is in a gated plot surrounded by trees and near a creek where the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953, is buried.
On Friday, a total of 6,231 people stopped by the church to pay their respects. Many of the women wore the former first lady’s favorite color, blue, and trademark pearls.
After seeing how many people had lined up to pay their respects to his wife, former President George H.W. Bush decided to attend — he sat at the front of the church in a wheelchair, offering his hand and smiled as people shook it, for about 15 minutes.
Barbara Bush, one of just two first ladies to have a child elected president, also was known as the “Enforcer” in her family, the glue who kept the high-powered clan together.
Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush accompanied by their family members watch as pallbearers carry the casket of former first lady Barbara Bush after a funeral service Bush at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Saturday, April 21, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)