WASHINGTON — It was his first NATO meeting in 1989, and as a parade of world leaders took turns at the podium, newly elected U.S. president George H.W. Bush was taking a lot of notes.
Brian Mulroney, Canada's prime minister at the time, couldn't help but notice — and ultimately couldn't resist.
"It's very flattering to have the president of the United States take notes as you speak," Mulroney wryly observed during a moment of levity in his tribute to the life and foreign-policy legacy of his close friend and confidant.
"Even someone as modest as me," he said, pausing for a cascade of knowing laughter, "threw in a few more adjectives here and there, to extend the pleasure of the experience."
Nearly 30 years later, Mulroney again spared few superlatives Wednesday during a solemn and reverential state funeral at Washington's National Cathedral, predicting that the 41st president would go down in history as the strongest, bravest and most distinguished commander-in-chief the United States has ever known.
"Many men of differing talents and skills have served as president and many more will do so as the decades unfold, bringing new strength and glory to these United States of America," Mulroney said, with the current one — Donald Trump — sitting directly in front of him.
"And 50 or 100 years from now, as historians review the accomplishments and the context of all who have served as president, I believe it will be said ... that no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled and more honourable than George Herbert Walker Bush."
None of the president's eulogizers — not Mulroney, nor presidential historian Jon Meacham, nor former Republican senator Alan Simpson, nor Bush's own son and eventual successor in the White House, George W. Bush — made any overt comparisons to Trump.
But at virtually every turn, in every rhetorical flourish hailing the elder Bush as a paragon of leadership, virtue and character, the contrast and the tension were palpable.
... no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled and more honourable than George Herbert Walker Bush.Brian Mulroney
Before the ceremony began, the current president's arrival alongside first lady Melania Trump marked a dramatic shift in mood. As they sat down, the couple exchanged brief pleasantries with their predecessors, Barack and Michelle Obama. Next to them were Bill and Hillary Clinton, Trump's 2016 campaign rival, who stared straight ahead, stone-faced.
Bush lived his life through a modest prism of principle, Meacham said: "Tell the truth, don't blame people, be strong, do your best, try hard, forgive, stay the course." He described the president's famous rallying cry of "a thousand points of light" as evocative of Lincoln's "better angels of our nature," calling them "companion verses in America's national hymn."
Trump, no fan of the Bush family, has mocked "points of light" at recent campaign rallies, preferring his own protectionist philosophy of "America first."
Nor was Trump asked to speak during the funeral, as is tradition for sitting presidents. Ostensibly, that's because the family already had a ready-made former president waiting in the wings: the fallen leader's son, whose eulogy collapsed briefly into tears as he imagined his father reunited with his late wife Barbara and daughter Robin, lost to leukemia in 1953.
"Through our tears, let us know the blessings of knowing and loving you, a great and noble man, the best father a son or daughter could ask," Bush said. "And in our grief, let us smile, knowing that Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom's hand again."
Mulroney, too, struggled at one point to contain himself as he recounted Bush, a former navy pilot, showing him a plaque mounted at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. It was inscribed with the letters CAVU: "ceiling and visibility unlimited," a description of perfect flying conditions.
"They are truly at peace with themselves, joyous in what they and the children have achieved, gratified by the goodness that God has bestowed upon them all. And genuinely content with the thrill and promise of each passing day," Mulroney said, referring to notes he made following that Labour Day encounter in 2001.
"George, who had tears in his eyes as I spoke, said, 'You know, Brian, you've got us pegged just right.' "
The former prime minister lingered on his old friend's foreign-policy and legislative resume, hailing his ability to navigate some of the most momentous, fractious moments in global history, including the collapse of the Soviet Union and the delicate challenge of reuniting a divided Germany after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Mulroney hailed the first Gulf War — a "Bush initiative, from beginning to end" — as "one of the most spectacular and successful international initiatives ever undertaken in modern history." And he cited the Americans with Disabilities Act, the acid-rain accord with Canada, and of course NAFTA, ushering in "the largest and richest free trade area in the history of the world."
He was just an extraordinarily gracious person.Minister Scott Brison
NAFTA, he acknowledged, has been "recently modernized and improved by new administrations," a reference to both the Liberal government in Ottawa and Trump himself, who has famously denounced the trade pact as one of the worst deals the United States has ever signed.
"There's a word for this," Mulroney said. "It's called leadership. When George Bush was president of the United States of America, every single head of government in the world knew that they were dealing with a gentleman, a genuine leader, one who was distinguished, resolute and brave."
Liberal cabinet minister Scott Brison and Ambassador David MacNaughton were also among an estimated 3,000 friends, dignitaries, presidents past and present and other political heavyweights who gathered at the cathedral for a final farewell.
"He was just an extraordinarily gracious person," Brison said in an interview Monday.
"He came from tremendous privilege, but he chose to use that privilege and that upbringing to serve the greater good. That sense of noblesse oblige is something that a lot of people of privilege don't necessarily remember, that sense of giving back. That was something he took seriously."