When taking stock of a life, especially one as extended as George H. W. Bush’s ninety-four years, it is the long view that is called for. The sights and sounds of Wednesday’s state funeral expanded the time frame far beyond the former president’s earthly sojourn of nearly a century.
On surveying the knights and ladies of the realm arrayed in the gothic expanse of the Washington National Cathedral, a dignitary from another planet (one that, in order to secure the invitation, had deeded over the requisite terrain to American off-world military bases) might well have wondered whether medieval crusaders had pitched up in the District of Columbia and promptly built this unlikely edifice’s spires, vaults, and buttresses. “Damn Right!” came Wednesday’s resplendent response.
Crusading General “Black Jack” Pershing had led the fundraising efforts to begin construction at the beginning of the last century, and it was meet and right that the body of the commander-in-chief of the international host that invaded the Arabian Peninsula in the First Gulf War should be hymned in the shadow of the cathedral’s high altar. Beyond all credulity Bush was lionized in the first eulogy by presidential historian Jon Meacham as “the last soldier statesman”—a Godfrey of Bouillon of the New World Order. A millennium on, the Christian crusades are still underway thanks in no small measure to St. George of Kennebunk.
The mighty cathedral organ—a veritable hardened silo of sonic Pershing missiles ranging from the stealthy to the shock-and-awful—also summoned thoughts not just of the retaking of the Holy Land but also, pushing still farther back in history, of the Roman Empire. In those days the newly-invented instrument was used, literally, to “organize” troops in battle, to add pomp to processions, and to train gladiators and accompany their combat, whipping up crowds in arenas all around the Mediterranean world. And so it was at the Bush obsequies, the mighty covering fire of the organ—the West’s oldest smart technology—urging on the troops in the opening hymn, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.” For the final verse, the choristers’ voices arced towards heaven in a majestic descant, like a Blue Angels aerial stunt team trailing colorful contrails. From every direction, it seemed, the organ let loose its biggest rockets—thundering bass flares with brilliant tracers above, starting in the minor but ending in triumphant major. The heroic bomber pilot Bush would have loved the extravagant show of musical force.
Braced by the organ’s sonorous command, thousands out in the church gave full voice to the tune and text of this Victorian war horse, spurring thoughts of a previous inheritor of the mantle of Rome: the British Empire. Long a mainstay of Windsor weddings at the National Cathedral’s Old World inspiration, Westminster Abbey, the hymn made clear that just as the Roman Empire had lived on in its eastern half of its dominions after the Fall of Rome, so too the Western half of the British Empire (Washington DC standing in for Constantinople) continues the English-speaking peoples’ mission of world domination.
The pew of honor—in which sat former presidents and their wives, and, along the aisle, the reigning chief executive and his consort—made a dismal show of it. Even Barack Obama, known on occasion to show off his fine voice, only appeared to muster a faint murmur. Embarrassment seemed the order of the day for America’s leaders when it came to hymn-singing. The only exception was Hillary Clinton, who tucked in with gusto, especially in comparison to hapless Bill to her right.
At the far end of the front row the Trumps didn’t even pay lip service to the rituals of congregational song. Both scowled silently through the whole hymn like petulant adolescents dragged into church by their parents. Barely observing the religious rite underway nor reverent of the supposed service to people and party rendered by a deceased Republican predecessor, theirs was a defiant authenticity.
You can bring a Trump to church but you can’t make him sing.
The difference with the surprisingly enthusiastic Hillary said it all about the 2016 presidential race, and perhaps that of 2020 as well. If one is searching for signs of yet another Hillary bid for the Oval Office, look no further than “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven!” at the Bush send-off. As antidote to that dismal vision of an imminent replay of 2016, one flashed forward (hopefully not too far forward) to the inevitable Trump state funeral, with Meatloaf leading the music at the Mar-a-Lago clubhouse.
It was left to the consul of a lesser Western offshoot of the British empire, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, to confirm the durability of English-speaking hegemony. In his remarks, Mulroney, called the United States of America “the greatest democratic republic that God has ever placed on the face of the earth.” That such a republic and its doting sister to the north favor the military arts rather than poetic (and therefore also musical) ones was soon made clear when Mulroney closed his address with one of the corniest bits of rhetoric ever dared:’ “There are wooden ships, there are sailing ships, there are ships that sail the sea, but the best ships are friendships and may they always be.” Later, George W. Bush’s reference to broccoli lowered the tone still further. The funerary orations that morning were hardly Periclean.
Unlike his namesake son, who adopted the Methodism of his wife Laura, George Bush the elder was born and buried an Episcopalian—the rebrand of the Church of England undertaken after the American Revolution, with the newly independent branch remaining reliant on the musical traditions back in the Mother Country. Director of music at the National Cathedral, Canon Michael McCarthy, a leading Anglican church musician, is a musical immigrant to this country. He assuredly directed the anthems—syrupy and affecting—by twentieth-century American composers following in the English tradition.
The United States Marine Band and Orchestra (the oldest professional musical organization in the country founded during the administration of John Adams at the end of the eighteenth century) and other brass ensembles played the coffin along its way with stentorian renditions of nineteenth-century hymns. A Nocturne by Gustav Holst from the waning days of the British Empire mourned the body as it was carried up the steps of the cathedral before the service.
However aristocratic the Bush background, the family has, especially since its removal from New England to the oil fields of Texas, increasingly gone for the downhome note. Alan Simpson’s tribute revealed that Bush held great affection for that British master of the musical theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber, even claiming Bush that was on occasion prone to sing ditties like “Don’t Cry for me Argentina.” Simpson’s tuneful slip of the tongue was inadvertently damning: the 1976 Argentine coup that brought in a right-wing junta just happened to occur on Bush’s watch as Director of the CIA.
The ceremony’s musical culmination came not with strains redolent of Westminster Abbey, however. Instead, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan belted out sickly-sweet patriotic sentiment in the form of Larry Grossman’s Lincolnian anthem, “Last Full Measure of Devotion.” Having sung “Silent Night” at Bush’s deathbed, Tynan was accompanied at the funeral by the red-coated marines delivering the cheesy harmonies with swelling strings, heroic brass, fearsome timpani, and snare drum’s martial lash that had all stepped directly off Broadway and into the solemn reaches of the National Cathedral. Grossman is the composer of, among other classics, the soundtrack for Disney’s Pocahontas II. It was fitting that such musical sensitivity to American history should be deployed to mark Bush’s passing. The effect of this upwelling of schlock was to swamp all the Anglican grandeur that had preceded it.
With Grossman’s campy canticle echoing down the endless nave, George Bush’s body was heading to Texas for one last show.