By Erwin Seba
HOUSTON (Reuters) – Former first lady Barbara Bush was remembered at her funeral on Saturday as a formidable but caring figure whose devotion to her family was matched only by her commitment to public service.
“She was our teacher and role model in how to live a life of purpose and meaning,” one of her four sons, former Florida governor and 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush, told the crowded Houston church.
He then drew laughs with a nod to Bush’s famously sharp tongue: “She called her style a benevolent dictatorship, but honestly, it wasn’t all that benevolent.”
Some 1,500 mourners, including governors, senators and former U.S. presidents, gathered at a televised but invitation-only service at the church to pay tribute to the matriarch of one of the country’s most prominent political dynasties, who died on Tuesday at age 92.
Bush, the wife of the 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush, and the mother of the 43rd, George W. Bush, was lauded as an inspiration both to the country and her loved ones, a woman who leavened a strong sense of decency and honor with a self-deprecating wit she employed to great effect.
“She was candid and comforting, steadfast and straightforward, honest and loving,” said the historian and author Jon Meacham, who wrote a biography of George H.W. Bush and was one of three eulogists whom Barbara Bush herself selected before her death.
“Barbara Bush and George Bush put country above party, the common good above political gain and service to others above the settling of scores,” he said.
Former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, current first lady Melania Trump, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former first lady Michelle Obama were all on hand for the service.
President Donald Trump, who clashed with the Bush family during his 2016 campaign, did not travel to Houston. The White House said this week he wanted to avoid disrupting the service with added security.
In a Twitter post, Trump said his “thoughts and prayers are with the entire Bush family.”
Former President Jimmy Carter was overseas and unable to attend.
Barbara Bush’s longtime friend, Susan Baker, the wife of former Secretary of State James Baker, described her in a eulogy as a “tough but loving enforcer” whose 73-year marriage to her husband was a real-life fairy tale.
George H.W. Bush would write a letter to his wife on each wedding anniversary, Jeb Bush said, before reading aloud one such letter from 1994, a year after his father left the White House.
“I was very happy on that day in 1945, but I’m even happier today,” he read, as his 93-year-old father squeezed his eyes shut and wept. “You have given me joy that few men know … I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.”
To honor his late wife’s commitment to literacy, the former president wore to the funeral a pair of colorful socks “festooned with books,” Bush spokesman Jim McGrath tweeted, adding that Barbara Bush had raised more than $100 million for the cause.
As the service ended, Bush’s grandsons bore her casket out of the church, with George W. Bush pushing his father in a wheelchair directly behind it.
Barbara Bush was buried on the grounds of the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum at Texas A&M University in College Station, next to her daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia at the age of 3. The motorcade carrying her body traversed George Bush Drive and Barbara Bush Drive on its way there.
More than 700 Texas A&M cadets lined the driveway to the presidential library grounds as the cortege passed, the Houston Chronicle reported. When the last vehicle entered the property, the gates were closed ahead of the private ceremony, the newspaper said.
Members of the public had a chance to pay their respects on Friday, when Bush lay in repose at the church. George H.W. Bush, seated in a wheelchair in front of the casket, greeted mourners in turn with a handshake.
(Reporting by Erwin Seba in Houston; Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Additional reporting and writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Daniel Wallis)