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Congressional Business Slows As Members Remember Ex-President Bush





When the casket of George H.W. Bush arrived at the United States Capitol yesterday, U.S. military pallbearers carried him up the steps. They carried him between stone columns and into the space beneath the Capitol dome. He lay in state beneath an American flag in the rotunda. Statues of past presidents surrounded him. Among others, Andrew Jackson is there. Ulysses S. Grant is there. Ronald Reagan is there, the man who defeated George H.W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination, then chose him as a running mate, then supported him as his presidential successor. NPR's Scott Detrow has been watching the ceremonies this week as people in Washington honor George H.W. Bush. He's in our studio.

Scott, good morning.


INSKEEP: What's the symbolic importance of this particular ceremony?

DETROW: A friend joked to me that this is as close as the United States comes to being Britain with its royal family and its pomp and circumstance. It's a moment of symbolism and ceremony where you have the military saying goodbye to a former commander in chief. Then you go into the rotunda, and you have the entire government in the rotunda in the center of government. You had the House standing there; you had the Senate standing there, the Supreme Court - saying goodbye to the former president of the United States.

INSKEEP: It's a high-ceilinged room but not a huge room. It must have been crowded in there, which must have been part of the drama of it all.

DETROW: And part of the history, knowing that Bush's casket was placed on the same stand, catafalque, used for Abraham Lincoln and so many other people - in a spot where Henry Clay, Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, so many giant American figures have been honored.

INSKEEP: So some of the current-day leaders had an opportunity to speak, and one of them was Mitch McConnell. He's now the Senate Republican leader, but he's been in Congress long enough that, if I'm not mistaken, he was around when George H.W. Bush was president. Let's listen to some of what he had to say.


MITCH MCCONNELL: A steady hand staying the course - that's what George Bush gave us for decades.

INSKEEP: That's Mitch McConnell. What else did you hear in that ceremony, Scott?

DETROW: Vice President Mike Pence spoke. Bush, of course, was a vice president for eight years. And there was one moment that really stood out where Pence talked about - you know, George Bush was famous for the letters he wrote. And toward the end of his life, just a few months ago, Bush wrote a letter to Pence's son, who is a Marine pilot who had actually been taking off and landing aircraft on the USS George H.W. Bush. And in the letter, Bush used an acronym Pence said he wasn't initially familiar with, CAVU.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: President Bush described CAVU, in his words, as the kind of weather we Navy pilots wanted when we were to fly off our carrier in the Pacific.

DETROW: So Pence was saying Bush was speaking aviator to aviator. And Pence went on to say that that description is a way that Bush lived his life.

INSKEEP: President Trump was not present for this ceremony, although he and the first lady, if I'm not mistaken, paid their respects later. And is it correct that just about anybody can walk past that casket at some point in the next day or two?

DETROW: That's right. All through the night and then all through today, the rotunda is open to the public to come through and stand in front of the casket.

INSKEEP: So I want to ask about one other thing, Scott Detrow. Of course, people are praising the former president. But you do justice to someone with a full appraisal. You do justice to history with a full appraisal. And there has been some criticism of President Bush these last few days. What are some of the things people are saying?

DETROW: So many people have focused on him being a kind person, a gentleman, that a lot of people have pointed out that may be true, but he ran really nasty campaigns. That 1988 presidential campaign - he really eviscerated Michael Dukakis and also ran ads focused on that Massachusetts prisoner Willie Horton that were really a high-profile moment in race-baiting politicking.

INSKEEP: Yeah. People involved in that campaign will emphasize they didn't themselves do the ad, but it was out there from a Bush supporter. And it was part of the discussion of the time.

DETROW: That's true. But there's one other thing that's been getting a lot of attention. And that's a clip of a 1980 interview where Bush said, I don't equate toughness with just attacking some individual. He was someone who campaigned with an elbows-out way but would govern and have personal relationships focusing on the common ground.

INSKEEP: OK. Scott, thanks very much for the update, really appreciate it.

DETROW: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Detrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.