DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Washington, D.C., an extraordinary mourning - the funeral for President George H.W. Bush has begun at the National Cathedral. And it is quite a scene. There are five living presidents among many other dignitaries who are there for this moment and this event. There have been hymns. There have been readings so far. And the first eulogy is taking place now. It is from presidential historian Jon Meacham, who was President George H.W. Bush's biographer.
One of the real telling moments was when President George W. Bush came in for the funeral of his father and greeted all of the fellow presidents who were seated in the front row. And that includes President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump. The 41st president of the United States, really a leader in a formidable political dynasty, the son of a senator, the father of a governor - Jeb Bush of Florida - and, of course, the father of the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush, who is going to be delivering a eulogy for his father in a short while inside the National Cathedral.
I want to bring in NPR senior correspondent Ron Elving and NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley, who are watching all of this unfold. Good morning to you both.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: Can we just talk about the moment for George W. Bush? I mean, I think about many speeches he's given to large audiences at impactful moments in the nation's history. But this is such a personal moment when he's going to be eulogizing his own father with the entire country watching.
ELVING: There is no other moment like it in any man or woman's life than to stand and face such an extraordinarily august group and, of course, the entire nation. But even in just a family situation, or just at a funeral for any American, any ordinary American, you can imagine the emotions that any son or daughter would be feeling at that particular moment, but then to have so much else making it so much more fraught for all of that audience.
GREENE: Yeah, Ron, you and I actually worked on an interview that I did with George W. Bush in Dallas back in 2014. He had written a book about his father. And I think for all of the many complicated questions about the relationship between father and son and also two presidents, you can just feel the love that this son had for his father.
I just want to play a little bit of a clip as George W. Bush was talking about some of the time he was spending with his dad as he was getting into his later years. And they were spending some time together, sitting, looking out at the ocean at the residence in Maine.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GEORGE W BUSH: Yeah. I was hoping at times to get the profound insights. As you know, our family's not all that strong in psychobabble. And so I'm sitting next to him gazing - as he's gazing out over the ocean. I had been painting and had quite a bit of oil paint on my pants. And I'm hoping that this is the moment that he'll talk about death, meaningful moments in his life. I said, Dad, what do you think? He said, I think it's beautiful, son. Pause. Say, do those pants come in clean, he says to me.
BUSH: He's got a wonderful sense of humor.
GREENE: Wonderful sense of humor. Ron, did you experience that sense of humor as you covered him over the years?
ELVING: When I was covering him first in the 1980s, he was experiencing a good deal of irritation with the people in our business. He was the vice president at the time. First - he was a presidential candidate at first. And he was annoyed with the way that the media were in general more enthralled with Ronald Reagan that year. Ultimately, of course, he joined Ronald Reagan and was part of his ticket.
But then when he was running for re-election as vice president and then again when he was running in 1988, he was frequently nettlesome with the media. That's not how he's remembered now because he managed that relationship better when he was actually in the White House than he had on the campaign trail.
GREENE: Scott Horsley, only two times has there been a father-son pair both serving as presidents. It's an extraordinary reality for a family to face. What are you thinking about as you're going to see George W. Bush walk up there at the National Cathedral in a short while and eulogize his dad?
HORSLEY: Well, obviously, he will be speaking as a loving son about his father, but he is also speaking as a former president and someone who, I think, is concerned with the way his father's presidency is viewed by history. That book that you had an opportunity to talk with George W. Bush about was, in a way, an effort to retell the history and trigger a reassessment of George H.W. Bush's single term in the White House. I remember George W. Bush telling you that anytime a president is not given a second term, there is some sense that perhaps he's failed. And he wanted to trigger a reassessment of that. This whole state funeral is also kind of an opportunity to reset the narrative or to polish the narrative a little bit about how this country will remember George H.W. Bush.
And Jon Meacham, who's speaking right now - the former president's biographer - is a part of that. He began by talking about George H.W. Bush's heroic service in World War II, flying Navy bombers off an aircraft carrier and about the time when he was downed. His plane was shot down. He had to parachute into the ocean. Two of his crew mates were killed. And how George Bush tried to live up to the salvation that he'd been granted in that opportunity and the lifetime of service that followed. Meacham described George H.W. Bush as our last great soldier statesman - or maybe sailor statesman might - Navy person might have preferred.
GREENE: Even more apt. You know, I think - you're talking about Jon Meacham, the eulogy that - he was the first one to give a eulogy at the funeral. We have a little bit of him talking about sort of the meaning of that moment when President Bush was shot down and rescued in World War II. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JON MEACHAM: Through the ensuing decades, President Bush would frequently ask, nearly daily he'd ask himself, why me? Why was I spared? And in a sense, the rest of his life was a perennial effort to prove himself worthy of his salvation on that distant morning.
GREENE: Ron, last sailor statesmen or soldier statesmen, what do you make of that as we think about the presidency?
ELVING: Again, this is the passing of not only a particular life, not only perhaps one particular political dynasty, but an understanding of who the ruling class were in the United States. It's fitting that this is in the National Cathedral, which is an Episcopalian Cathedral, which is very closely tied to the Anglo heritage of the United States. There is a sense here, especially as you see Jeb Bush with his Mexican-born wife sitting in the front row, there's a sense of change coming and a sense of saying farewell to the past.
GREENE: Yeah. Listening to the choir here as the funeral for George H.W. Bush continues at the National Cathedral, speaking to my colleagues Ron Elving and Scott Horsley. And we're going to be covering this event all morning. You can hear that coverage on your member stations and at npr.org. Waiting for George W. Bush to give one of the eulogies for his father. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.