When plans were announced for the late President George H.W. Bush to lie in state at the Capitol this week, Russell Gill of Tennessee decided he needed to pay his respects – tapping into the Christmas money fund, he bought plane tickets for a whirlwind trip to Washington with his 8-year-old son.
“We’re going up and going back in one day,” Gill said Tuesday, as he left the Capitol Rotunda on a chilly morning with son Taylor.
They plan to head back at 8 in the evening, after catching a 6 a.m. flight to D.C., with his son even missing a day of school for a brush with history. “We’re coming to celebrate our nation, to celebrate the presidency and to honor and remember the great life that was President George H.W. Bush,” Gill said.
Americans from all across the country, like the Gill family, have been streaming into the Capitol to pay respects to the late president. Bush’s remains, with a guard of honor in attendance, will lie in state in the Rotunda until funeral services begin Wednesday. His casket has been in the Capitol since Monday night, when a short service was held with family, friends and lawmakers.
A diverse cross-section of visitors have arrived to honor the 41st president's legacy.
Amid the visits from members of the public, there have also been sporadic appearances from high-profile figures who served under his administration, as well as fellow former CIA directors. Colin Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush, appeared Tuesday with others from Operation Desert Storm. And so did Sully – Bush’s yellow Labrador service dog who flew with the president to Washington and had been photographed next to Bush’s casket.
Outside the Capitol on Tuesday, 61-year-old Army veteran Vernie Hubert, who splits time between Texas and D.C., said he felt called to pay his respects to Bush, who, like his father, was from the World War II generation.
“I had to go in and salute him,” Hubert said, as he left the viewing area.
Members of the public are permitted to visit the Rotunda, where Bush’s casket has been placed in the center of the room. Inside the Capitol on Tuesday, ushers in red coats were seen guiding visitors inside, where visitors are prohibited from taking photos.
“It actually moved through pretty quickly,” Libby Hogen-Heath, 44, from Woodbridge, Va., said Tuesday. “Everybody was quiet and respectful, [I] was allowed the opportunity to say my little prayer. And sign the book and get a nice little memorial from them.”
Hogen-Heath said this is the first time she’s done this for a former president – but Bush was the first president that she really remembers.
“I just thought he was a really wonderful person,” she said. “A great family man. Just somebody we can all aspire to be like.”
All visitors are given a small memorial card, which shows Bush in a bomber jacket and lists the offices he held.
“The family of George H.W. Bush deeply appreciates your prayers and many kindness as together we celebrate and honor the life of a loving and devoted husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, friend and the 41st President of the United States,” it reads.
Before Bush’s casket arrived on Capitol Hill, hundreds of people lined up to be first inside on a chilly and grey Monday afternoon. Some had camped out in line for hours – and were prepared to stand in line for several more – as Bush’s family, friends and other dignitaries were scheduled to go inside the Capitol Rotunda first.
Many of those in line were tourists, who just happened to be in Washington and decided they wanted to pay their respects.
Christopher Wiles, 53, from Bush’s adopted hometown of Houston, said he happened to be in D.C. for business and decided to get in line to see Bush’s casket.
“I worked on Capitol Hill during both the Reagan and the Bush administrations, and he was a man that just embodied courtesy and decency,” Wiles said. “I certainly didn’t know him personally, but felt like I did.”
Dawn Walton, 66, from Montgomery, Ind., and small group of friends said they had been in line for a couple hours, and were willing to stand in the cold November night until they were let inside.
“Once in a lifetime for us,” Walton said. “He was a great president and it’s worth it.”
On Wednesday, Bush’s casket will depart Joint Base Andrews and be flown to Houston, Texas, for a funeral. He will be buried at the George Bush Presidential Library & Museum at Texas A&M University.
Gill, the Tennessee lawyer, said he also visited D.C. for Ronald Reagan’s services but said coming to see Bush was especially important to him.
“He was the first president I got to vote for,” he said.