December 4, 2018 started like any other Monday. I went to work and then to school as I am working on my Masters in history at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey (I have since completed my degree). Three days before on Friday November 30, the 41st president died at 94 years old. Having written a book about the presidential deaths and funerals, I had thought for several years when another president passes, I want to attend the public viewing in person. December 4 was the first night of President George H. W. Bush’s public viewing. My class let out at about 6 PM and I immediately began the drive to Washington, DC. On the five-hour, monotonous drive on I-95, I thought about why I was going. I always admired President Bush and wanted to pay my respects. But also, I wanted to experience the viewing myself since I’ve written about several past funerals and finally, to do on-site research for a second edition of my book, The President Is Dead! The Extraordinary Stories of the Presidential Deaths, Final Days, Burials, and Beyond.
I arrived around 11:00 PM and rested a bit at the hotel. After a few minutes, I put on my bright colored socks and affixed an original Bush/Quaye 1988 pin to my sportscoat and walked onto the street. It was a cold night, with temperatures hovering around freezing. I left the hotel at 11:44 AM and walked about a mile to the Capital building. I arrived 12:03 PM to find a crowd outside on First Street. There were about six or eight rows set up with gates, but only the first was filled. The crowd was predominately around my age or older with some in military uniforms. Most stood in silence, some in quiet conversation. A few appeared to be there not specifically for President Bush, but for an adventure. The group behind me spoke admirably of President Bush, but mangled many of the facts and a few people in front of me, a couple had a flask and appeared to be having a good time of it. All were respectful.
People were admitted in intervals to the Capital grounds, and after waiting about thirty minutes, I passed through White House security. I was still outside, however, but now lined up on the left entrance (looking at the Capital). After twenty more minutes, I was ushered into the Capital Building. It was 12:55 AM. I went through a metal detector and then walked through the Capital, following the sparse crowds. There were friendly guards inside who pointed in the right direction, but inside the line had broken up. At the base of the steps to the Rotunda, guards asked us to pause (I later found out it was because there was a changing of the honor guards which must have been at 1:00 AM). At a few minutes, I entered the Capitol Rotunda.
President Bush’s coffin was in the center of the room and the crowd was split into two and entered to the right or left (I entered to the left). I have read about the complete silence of the presidential funeral ceremonies, but this was the first time I had experienced it in person. At any given time, there were about 100 people inside the Rotunda, but it was complete silent save for the soft shuffling of feet and the muffled echo in the cavernous space. There was no chatter among the groups whatsoever. President Bush’s flag draped coffin was attended by an honor guard and sat atop the same catafalque first used for Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Along the round walls of the room were statues of former presidents Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, Ford and Reagan. There was a man on a platform taking photos – digital, film, and what appeared to me to be an old fashioned with big glass plates. C-span was also filming, but I was not aware of it at the time. I did not notice a camera, so it must have been intentionally obscured.
I thought I would just file past the coffin and exit, but we were allowed to stay in the Rotunda as long as we wanted. I meandered inside for about a half hour as I slowly made my way around the half circle. There was a flag by the head of the coffin, and there I stood for about 10 minutes taking it all in one last time before I departed. When I left there was a man with an old-fashioned clicker counting people as they exited.
On the way from the Rotunda to the exit, I passed a table set up with condolence books and prayer cards. On a podium, one could simply sign their name, while on the table, manned by an elderly woman, one could write a longer message to the family. Many speakers during the subsequent funeral and services, spoke of Bush as a man who wrote thousands of personal letters, perhaps the last president to do so. I had my own personalized letter from him. Years earlier I sent him and Barbara a book of mine and he responded with a personalized thank you letter. I mentioned this in my inscription. The woman at the table thanked every visitor – everyone! It didn’t dawn on me then, but on the walk home I wondered if she were a member of the Bush family. I exited the capital about 1:40 AM. By this time, there was no crowd on First Street and it only appeared to be a twenty-minute wait. I walked back to the hotel as I contemplated the evening. It was a very moving experience for me. After reading and writing of so many presidential viewings in the Capitol Rotunda starting from Lincoln, it was humbling to attend one myself in person.
When I got back to the hotel, I looked online and found that C-Span was streaming the viewing live. I was able to look at earlier footage and see myself walk past the camera. As George HW Bush was the first president to die in the social media era, I dutifully posted a still image from C-Span and a picture of the line on Facebook. The next day I hung around DC a bit and jogged past the Capital around noon. I saw a slew of reporters and a surprisingly smaller crowd of viewers than the previous night. The most poignant sight, however, was a church across First Ave which was conducting an outdoor memorial service for President Bush.