Is this re­ally the last time di­vided Wash­ing­ton will unite?

The Australian - - WORLD - GER­ALD F. SEIB

In death, Ge­orge HW Bush ac­com­plished some­thing per­haps no one alive could achieve.

He brought to­gether the Wash­ing­ton that was with the Wash­ing­ton that is; the great­est gen­er­a­tion with the baby boomers and the mil­len­ni­als; the old Re­pub­li­can Party with the new Re­pub­li­can Party; and yes, even lib­er­als with con­ser­va­tives.

As mourn­ers filled the seats of the cav­ernous Na­tional Cathe­dral for his funeral yes­ter­day, it was hard to es­cape the feel­ing that the 41st pres­i­dent, a man known in life for his grace and de­cency, had used those gifts from the here­after to unite a crowd that will never be as­sem­bled again.

It was in some ways an in­con­gru­ous pic­ture: A leader who per­fected the art of the hand­writ­ten thank-you note was be­ing farewelled in a time of the hi-tech po­lit­i­cal in­sult.

One of Bush’s eu­lo­gists, bi­og­ra­pher Jon Meacham, seemed to place Bush as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a time gone by when he re­ferred to him as “Amer­ica’s last great sol­dier-states­man”.

Yet the ques­tion that seemed to hang over the crowd was whether Bush re­ally must be seen as the last of his kind — or whether he might leave be­hind a lit­tle of that unity and ci­vil­ity as he was flown off for burial in Texas.

There are am­ple grounds for scep­ti­cism. Even as this Bush mo­ment was marked, it wasn’t pos­si­ble to put aside en­tirely the pas­sions and di­vi­sions of the mo­ment.

When Don­ald Trump ar­rived, he strode past and then sat down in the same pew as for­mer sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Clin­ton, who op­posed him in a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in which Trump led sup­port­ers in chant­ing, “Lock her up!”. Clin­ton sat stony-faced, star­ing straight ahead.

Still, even that stern vis­age broke when trib­utes to Bush be­gan flow­ing dur­ing a two-hour ser­vice that united mourn­ers across gen­er­a­tional and ide­o­log­i­cal lines.

Not far from the front sat Bush’s one-time po­lit­i­cal foe and late-life friend, for­mer sen­a­tor and Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Bob Dole, a fel­low World War II vet­eran.

On Wed­nes­day, Dole had gath­ered all the strength his 95year-old body would al­low to rise from his wheel­chair and of­fer a salute to the Bush cof­fin that elec­tri­fied and uni­fied a frac­tious coun­try. Else­where, the for­mer leader of Poland, Lech Walesa, who joined Bush in help­ing bring an end to the Soviet Union, sat not far from the likely fu­ture king of Eng­land, Prince Charles. Off to one side, Demo­cratic and Re­pub­li­can sen­a­tors min­gled eas­ily.

Through­out the cer­e­mony — the first state funeral in 12 years — the sub­text ap­peared to be a mes­sage to to­day’s prac­ti­tion­ers of the po­lit­i­cal arts that it is pos­si­ble to be, as Bush once said fa­mously, “kinder and gen­tler”, and to unite as well as di­vide.

Meacham said Mr Bush “stood in the breach in Wash­ing­ton against un­think­ing par­ti­san­ship.”

The late pres­i­dent’s son, Ge­orge W. Bush, the na­tion’s 43rd pres­i­dent, said of his fa­ther: “He looked for the good in each per­son. And he usu­ally found it.”

And for­mer sen­a­tor Alan Simp­son, a close friend, said: “He never hated any­one …. The most de­cent and hon­ourable man I ever met was my friend, Ge­orge Bush.”

These are the kinds of things peo­ple nor­mally say at funer­als, of course, and they tend to brush past the blem­ishes on any such pic­ture. As some eu­lo­gists also noted, Bush suc­ceeded in some mea­sure by be­ing a tough po­lit­i­cal fighter when he needed to be.

His cam­paigns, par­tic­u­larly his suc­cess­ful 1988 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, some­times re­flected the di­vi­sive as­pects of po­lit­i­cal life as well as the brighter sides. Bush later ap­peared to re­gret those brief for­ays onto the dark side, and he made it to the end of his life with al­most no real en­e­mies.

Yet for all the talk of unity there were no Demo­cratic speak­ers at yes­ter­day’s ser­vice, and no hand­shakes be­tween Trump and Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Bush brought to the Oval Of­fice per­haps the most glit­ter­ing re­sume of mod­ern times: for­mer vice-pres­i­dent, UN am­bas­sador, en­voy to China, mem­ber of congress, party chair­man, di­rec­tor of cen­tral in­tel­li­gence.

Yet it is strik­ing that his eu­lo­gies yes­ter­day dwelt more on his per­sonal style and char­ac­ter than those achieve­ments.

“Some have said in re­cent days this is the end of an era,” said the Rev­erend Rus­sell Levenson Jr, the late pres­i­dent’s Hous­ton pas­tor.

“But it does not have to be.”

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