Last week did not start according to plan for Congress. Before the new Congress starts in January, the current members are, namely, still trying to pass several pieces of legislation such as the remaining fiscal 2019 funding bills. Due to the death of former President George H. W. Bush, however, the business of the federal government was put to a halt. Lying in state is a posthumous tribute to government officials, where the casket is displayed in the Capitol Rotunda for people to pay their respects. For this reason, Wednesday was declared a national day of mourning so federal government employees were able to pay respect to the 41st President lying in state. With Washington, D.C., being the center of government it felt like life in the city just stopped for one day.

Since Congress is a different branch of government, this did not apply to us. Yet, the House of Representatives was out of session for the whole week. Consequently, the intensity of work in the office was toned down, due to votes being postponed or cancelled. But the symbolism of the national day of mourning and eventfulness of lying in state still made this week a learning experience.

Members of the public pay their respects at the casket of former President George H. W. Bush lying in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

During the three days, there were several captivating moments resonating American political culture and the ceremonial role of the presidency. When the coffin of former President Bush was brought to the Capitol, the work in the office stopped and all of us together watched the ceremony, while in the background we could hear the cannons from the 21-gun salute. Walking home from work, I passed long lines of people waiting for hours in freezing weather to be able to pay their respect. When I myself went to see the casket, it was a powerful moment. Despite the Rotunda being filled with people it felt solemn and quiet, an august tribute to the former president. People were not just there as individuals, but as a community.

It is remarkable, how despite the current polarization, in those three days, politics were put on hold. In those moments, what mattered was showing gratitude to an individual serving the country and at the same time respect for the presidency as an institution. Despite all the controversy surrounding the current President, it showed the power and legitimacy the office of the Presidency still commands and enjoys in American society.