WASHINGTON – As George Herbert Walker Bush lay in state Tuesday under the grand United States Capitol Rotunda, thousands filed silently past his flag-draped coffin in final tribute.
The viewing opened to the public at 7:30 p.m. on Monday. According to Capitol staff, about 2,000 people per hour passed through Rotunda since 7 a.m. Tuesday. An estimated 40,000 visitors were expected before the viewing was scheduled to end on Wednesday at 7 a.m.
Americans traveled to the nation’s capital from across the country.
William Henry, a 67-year-old retired operations manager from Florence, Alabama, drove from Tennessee to Washington on Monday to ensure he had a chance to honor what he said may be the last Republican president he has the chance to see lying in state.
“He was an honest and humble guy; much different than today’s politicians. He was believable. He lived a long, great life,” Henry said.
Under the Rotunda, each person had the opportunity to stand behind velvet ropes near the casket, flanked by a military honor guard, and take as much, or as little, time desired to pay respects or say a prayer.
Except for heels striking the floor, the huge room was silent. Some visitors wore Bush and Quayle buttons from his 1988 or 1992 presidential campaigns.
After exiting the Rotunda, thousands of people stood in line to sign condolence books, writing messages for Bush and his family, and reminiscing about the legacy that Bush leaves behind.
Despite political party differences, visitors agreed that Bush was a humble and honest politician.
In the turbulent time that Bush was in office, from the first Gulf War to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, he managed to gain consensus from the people and advance the best interests of the country, said Richard Coorsh, a 66-year-old, retired communications consultant from Alexandria, Virginia.
“While I didn’t agree with his politics, I surely agreed with his stance on humanity,” said Robert Johnson, 71, of Staunton, Virginia. “My wife was handicapped and he got the Disabilities Act of 1990 through, and I don’t think that would ever get through today. It was liberal Democrats that wrote it but he championed it and got Republicans on board and it passed and made a big difference.”
“I thought he was filled with humility and really cared about the American people – all American people – and had a conscientiousness and did the best he could. He forged a way of peace under some very turbulent times,” said Caron Gwynn, who works for an episcopal ministry in Washington.
Many filing past the Bush catafalque said they had come to the Rotunda as well for previous fallen presidents.
For Johnson, his visit to see Bush marked his fourth president to lie in state.
“The first one I went to was (Dwight D.) Eisenhower, and the next one was (Lyndon B.) Johnson,” Johnson said. “It was very different. You just lined up and you had to run right right through. The lines were out the back, past the Supreme Court. Today, there aren’t as many people here so being able to stand there for a while was very good and reflect on it all.”
For others, the solemn event was a first. Some parents, like Lance Hampton of Virginia, brought their children, even on a school day, so they could witness a historic moment.
His seven-year-old son, Alfie, had the chance to visit the Capitol for the first time, take a sick day from school and learn from his father how to pay respects to influential people in the nation’s history, Hampton said.
“I remember very distinctly when (Ronald) Reagan was shot and how that all worked out,” Hampton said. “And I remember my father telling me when I was Alfie’s age and how it all works and how we were all worried for the country and how we were reassured with Bush in office.”
For others, like Gwynn, Tuesday’s visit brought back a similar experience from childhood.
“I remember my father carrying me up the steps to the Rotunda as a child when President John F. Kennedy laid in state,” she said. “Now, as an adult, I wanted to come and pay my respects to President Bush.”
Although the word “sad” was what many visitors used to describe Bush’s death, they also said they were comforted knowing that he was now reunited with his wife, former First Lady Barbara Bush, who died in April.
“I was sad, very sad, but I know that he had suffered for quite some time, and I knew that he was suffering quite a bit because of the loss of his beloved wife,” said Richard Coorsh, a 66-year-old, retired communications consultant from Alexandria, Virginia, “l am gratified that he went in a very peaceful way and it is his hope that he would be reunited with his wife and his child in Heaven.”