For years, since we have lived on the east coast, I have mentioned to my wife the desire to attend a lying in state by a deceased President of the United States. This is not because I am morbid or have any fascination with death (okay, maybe it is a little odd). Rather, I have witnessed the passing of two presidents in my lifetime (that I remember: Ronald Reagan, 2004; Gerald Ford 2006) and I am enthralled by the outpouring it produces. The outpouring of appreciation of service regardless of policy. The outpouring of national unity regardless of current debate. So, when my wife told me late on a Friday night that George H. W. Bush had passed, I immediately began conceiving the trip.
We left on a Tuesday, late morning. We loaded up the kids, took the dog to the boarding place, and got on the road. Traffic was as to be expected. Took about 45 minutes to cross the George Washington Bridge in New York. The New Jersey Parkway makes for smooth driving at a good pace. We arrived at our hotel in Silver Spring, MD around 6:00 that evening, culminating a roughly seven-hour drive.
After freshening up, we loaded the metro for the trip to the capital. It was a chilly night in early December. And the federal government had announced that it was shutting down on Wednesday in honor of the late president, so the crowd was burgeoning knowing that many did not have work the next day. So we stood in line and waited on the east side of the capital. And we waited. And we shivered. And we waited some more. All told, we waited about 2.5 hours outside in the cold. All the while making a little conversation with the folks around us, everyone there to pay their respects and experience the same sense of national pride we hoped for. The kids, for their part, were wonders in their patience and dealing with the frigid air. (Yes, there were tears, but no major meltdowns, so that’s a win!)
We entered the capital at roughly 11:00 that night, and after going through security, we walked the maze of roped-off corridors, up the escalator, and into the rotunda. My wife had been in the capital before, but this was my first time. It was quite an inspirational experience. The rotunda was smaller than I expected, dimly lit, but full of spectators. We saw the flag-draped casket as we entered, and felt the sense of loss for our country as memories came to mind of what I have read and watched of this man. A large crowd had stalled movement as a changing of the guard began. The quiet, smooth movements of the trained members of all services were impressive and befitting the occasion. What an honor to see!
Once complete, it was time for us to leave. The line outside now wrapped around to 2nd Street, further to the east We had 20 minutes to catch the last metro back to Silver Spring. Booking it back to Union Station, we made it just in time. Of course, the kids, who seemed pretty exhausted upon leaving the capital, were now wide awake as they rode the subway for the second time in their life. A sleep that night was shortened by the leaf blowers in the morning outside the hotel. And there was no enjoying the early hours, it was time to eat and get on the road. We made it back in six hours this time, and back to reality the next day.
Would we do it again? Not in a one-day trip, but surely we would try and make and extended trip work in the future. But we hope our kids will have a sense of the responsibility that our country places on the executive office, the importance of honoring those who serve us and represent our country, and the respect that we give to our elected officials that lead us honorably and graciously.
Lastly, where does George H. W. Bush fit into the history of U.S. Presidents? Well, in many ways, it is too early to fully and comprehensively judge. Most historians try to give at least 30 years after a president leaves office to offer a good review of performance (30 years being a typical lifespan for many classified documents to go for declassification review), thus avoiding the “sin of presentism” that I hear some speak of. But, I think it is clear that George H. W. Bush will be remembered as one of the most qualified men to ever assume the office, and one of the most effective foreign policy presidents our country has ever had, and at least for the 20th century. The numerous positions he held in government prior to assuming the presidency notwithstanding (WWII navy pilot, Congressman, UN Ambassador, Envoy to China, CIA Director, Vice President), he confronted the enormous challenges with reason, broad thoughtfulness, and, when necessary, strength (think Panama invasion, Tiananmen Square, the downfall of the Soviet Union, reunification of Germany, and the Gulf War). And, he certainly held the office and acted with integrity and class, as he did in the years following his time as president. I think history will conduct a significant positive revision on the legacy of George H. W. Bush, but time will tell. I look forward to that time. For more, see: When the World Seemed New by Jeffrey Engel and Destiny and Power by Jon Meacham.