George H.W. Bush's funeral: The first farewell to a president in more than a decade

Posted December 3, 2018 12:38 a.m. EST

— A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

A presidential funeral

This week, for the first time in nearly 12 years, America will lay a former president to rest. George H.W. Bush will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda from Monday evening until Wednesday morning.

Then there will be a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral. Bush spoke at the most recent presidential memorial there -- a service for Gerald Ford in January 2007.

Ford passed away "just after a midterm election in which Democrats won Congress," the NYT's Peter Baker tweeted. "His departure occasioned a moment of bipartisan coming together — but just a moment."

More than a decade later, in this twittery age, state funerals are still television events -- bringing people together and bearing witness to American greatness. The goodbye to Sen. John McCain earlier this year was a "where were you when?" moment. And Bush's farewell will receive even more attention.

"You know, we're not a very historical society," Frank Sesno told me on Sunday's "Reliable Sources." And we live at a time when events fly by in real time, "instantaneously, and then it's gone." So memorials, like this week's tributes to Bush 41, are a rare chance to "reflect on a life and to think what service to country actually looks like," Sesno said.

Wednesday in DC, Thursday in Houston

After the DC service on Wednesday, the former president will be flown back to Texas. There will a memorial service in Houston. Then, per CNN's story here, he will be laid to rest at his presidential library in College Station, Texas, "where his wife, Barbara Bush, and daughter Robin, who died of leukemia as a child, are buried."

Monday's morning shows

CNN's "New Day" anchors John Berman and Alisyn Camerota will be live from DC on Monday. So will "CBS This Morning" co-anchors John Dickerson and Norah O'Donnell. CBS co-anchor Bianna Golodryga will be in Houston. (Gayle King is on some pre-planned time off.)

On NBC, Savannah Guthrie will co-anchor from DC starting Monday through Wednesday. Later in the day, ABC's "World News Tonight" anchor David Muir will be live from DC... with Amy Robach in Houston...

Interviews with past presidents

George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama taped interviews withNorah O'Donnell in the past 18 months, knowing the Q&A's would only air after Bush 41's passing. Those interviews formed the basis of this double-length segment on Sunday's "60 Minutes." Obama has granted very few interviews since leaving office last year, so it's notable that he participated in this.

When a member of "The Presidents Club" dies, you naturally want to hear from the other members. CNN's Jamie Gangel sat down with both Clinton and Bush 43 for her Saturday night special report...

When the news broke on Friday...

As the NYT's Peter Baker reported here, "Bush had been fading in the last few days." 41's last words were to Bush 43 via speaker phone.

On Friday night a small number of reporters were in position in Houston, on standby for the announcement. Many others were caught by surprise when Jim McGrath, Bush 41's longtime spokesman, announced the former president's passing at 11:48 p.m. ET.

It was too late for some major papers to rip up the front page. But all three cable news channels were still live. Don Lemon, Steve Kornacki and Shannon Bream reported the news on CNN, MSNBC and Fox respectively. Lemon went live to CNN's Jamie Gangel, and then to Dana Bash, who was standing by in Houston. He stayed live until 3 a.m. ET, when CNN showed the HBO documentary "41."

On Fox, Bret Baier and others joined Bream's special coverage. Meantime, Kornacki anchored a lengthy special report for NBC stations across the country, featuring an obit by Lester Holt. The special reports at midnight on ABC and CBS were much shorter. ABC's cut-in was led by correspondent Lynda Lopez, who sometimes appears on ABC's overnight newscast. Byron Pitts anchored a special edition of "Nightline" at 12:30. On CBS, one of the network's L.A. station anchors, Sharon Tay, led a short special report about Bush's passing. In these moments, you see how prepared the networks are... or are not... for big breaking news stories. TVNewser has details here...

Reflections from veteran reporters

Bush was "available and accessible" to the press corps, former White House correspondent Charles Bierbauer said on "Reliable."

"He also understood our job," Sam Donaldson added. "Presidents don't like everything they read or see, but he understood what we were about."

Read Jackie Wattles' story about the segment here...

A very different media environment

Bush 41 was the last president to serve in a pre-WWW, pre-Drudge, pre-Fox News world. "This was before the age of the Internet and before cable exploded into what it is now," Sesno said on "Reliable." He described genial relationships between the W.H. press secretary and the press corps that are hard to picture today...

>> One more point from Sesno: H.W. Bush "actually believed in government..."

>> But was it really a "kinder, gentler time," as some have said? Donaldson and I discussed how Bush's 1988 campaign trafficked in fear-mongering via the infamous Willie Horton ad. We talked about Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes' roles... Video here...

41 versus 45

So many of the conversations about Bush's life and legacy are a contrast to President Trump. There's just no way to pretend otherwise.

WaPo's Greg Jaffe captured it this way: "In death, Bush becomes a yardstick for President Trump."

This came up all weekend long. Witness Maureen Dowd: "Covering H.W.'s White House was wildly different than covering Donald Trump's," she wrote. "A Trump day bursts with a fusillade of huge news stories, often starting at dawn with a crazy tweet and usually involving the amorality, criminality and vulgarity of the president and his circle. I could go for months without getting a juicy story out of 41's White House..."


-- Jim Rutenberg's Monday column: "News Networks Fall Short on Climate Story as Dolphins Die on the Beach..." (NYT)

-- "Astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson has denied allegations of sexual misconduct made against him by three women..." (CNN)

-- "Fox Broadcasting and National Geographic, which air the popular science program 'Cosmos,' said they would investigate the allegations..." (NYT)

Read more of Sunday's "Reliable Sources" newsletter... And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox...

Media week ahead calendar

Monday: BI's Ignition conference gets underway in NYC...

Monday: Tim Cook receives an ADL award...

Monday night: Redskins v. Eagles in MNF!

Wednesday: Sundar Pichai testifies on Capitol Hill...

Thursday: Golden Globe nominations will be announced at 8 a.m. ET...

Thursday: A key hearing in the DOJ's appeal of US v. AT&T...

Friday: "Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes" premieres in theaters, on demand and online...