As pres­i­dents club as­sem­bles for fu­neral, Trump on fringes



As­so­ci­ated Press

— The na­tion’s most ex­clu­sive fra­ter­nity — the pres­i­dents club — as­sem­bled Wed­nes­day to mourn Ge­orge H.W. Bush, putting on pub­lic dis­play its un­easy re­la­tion­ship with the cur­rent oc­cu­pant of the Oval Of­fice. The un­com­fort­able re­union brought Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to­gether in the same pew with past White House res­i­dents who have given him de­cid­edly crit­i­cal re­views.

The late Bush was the de facto chair of the mod­ern in­car­na­tion of the pres­i­dent’s club, tran­scend­ing con­tentious cam­paigns and party lines to bring to­gether frac­tious per­son­al­i­ties who share that rar­i­fied ex­pe­ri­ence. But the staid group of Oval Of­fice oc­cu­pants has been dis­turbed since Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion. And since his swear­ing-in, Trump has spurned most con­tact with his pre­de­ces­sors — and they have snubbed him in re­turn.

The Bushes had made it known to the White House months ago that, de­spite dif­fer­ences in pol­icy and tem­per­a­ment, the late pres­i­dent wanted Trump to at­tend the na­tional ser­vice. The cer­e­mony’s trib­utes at times stood as an un­spo­ken coun­ter­point to Trump’s lead­er­ship, as his­to­rian Jon Meacham eu­lo­gized Bush by re­count­ing his life’s credo: “Tell the truth, don’t blame peo­ple, be strong, do your best, try hard, for­give, stay the course.” Ge­orge W. Bush added of his fa­ther: “He could tease and nee­dle, but not out of mal­ice.”

Ahead of Wed­nes­day’s state fu­neral for the late pres­i­dent, for­mer pres­i­dents Barack Obama, Bill Clin­ton and Jimmy Carter and their spouses chat­ted eas­ily among them­selves from their seats in the front row at Wash­ing­ton’s Na­tional Cathe­dral. The ex-pres­i­dents leaned over


their wives to chat with one an­other. Bill Clin­ton and for­mer first lady Michelle Obama shared a quiet con­ver­sa­tion.

But the Trumps’ ar­rival, min­utes ahead of the mo­tor­cade car­ry­ing Bush’s cas­ket, cast an icy pall on the con­ver­sa­tion. First lady Me­la­nia Trump ap­proached first, greet­ing both Oba­mas and for­mer pres­i­dent Clin­ton with a hand­shake. The pres­i­dent then shook hands with both Oba­mas be­fore tak­ing his seat. Hil­lary Clin­ton stared straight ahead as the Trumps ar­rived, and the Carters ap­peared not to rec­og­nize his ar­rival at all.

Af­ter that, the small talk along the row largely stopped.

Next fol­lowed Ge­orge W. Bush, who, by con­trast, shook hands with the en­tire row of dig­ni­taries — and ap­peared to share a mo­ment of hu­mor with Michelle Obama, slip­ping some­thing into her hand. Bush took his seat across the aisle from the ex-pres­i­dents, with the rest of the Bush fam­ily.

The Trump-Obama hand­shake marked the first di­rect in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the cur­rent pres­i­dent and his im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sor since In­au­gu­ra­tion Day 2017. Trump has not spo­ken to Democrats Clin­ton or Obama since that day.

He did speak with the younger Bush dur­ing the con­tentious con­fir­ma­tion process for Supreme Court Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh, as the pre­vi­ous Repub­li­can pres­i­dent helped lobby for his for­mer aide. Demo­crat Carter has been briefed by White House of­fi­cials on North Korea, though it was not clear if he has en­gaged di­rectly with Trump.

Trump has sought to meet the el­der Bush’s pass­ing with grace, a con­trast to the rhythms of much of his tu­mul­tuous pres­i­dency. He came to of­fice af­ter a cam­paign in which he harshly crit­i­cized his Demo­cratic pre­de­ces­sors and co-opted a Repub­li­can Party once dom­i­nated by the Bush fam­ily. De­spite the tra­di­tional kin­ship among pres­i­dents, Trump’s pre­de­ces­sors have all made their dis­com­fort known in dif­fer­ent ways.

“It’s un­usual that a ca­bal of ex-pres­i­dents from both par­ties dis­like a sit­ting pres­i­dent and that’s what you’ve got hap­pen­ing right now,” said Dou­glas Brink­ley, a his­tor y pro­fes­sor at Rice Univer­sity.

By virtue of health, longevity and op­por­tu­ni­ties for con­tin­ued in­flu­ence, ex-pres­i­dents are stick­ing around longer than ever and stay­ing ac­tive in the pub­lic eye.

Past pres­i­dents of­ten built re­la­tion­ships with their pre­de­ces­sors, Brink­ley said. “Bill Clin­ton would reach out to Richard Nixon for ad­vice on Rus­sia,” he said. “Harry Tru­man leaned heav­ily on Her­bert Hoover. It’s end­less.”

To be sure, Brink­ley added, those ties vary from pres­i­dent to pres­i­dent and there have been chilly re­la­tion­ships as well, not­ing, for ex­am­ple, that “FDR would never talk to Her­bert Hoover.”

Busy with a mix of per­sonal pur­suits, char­i­ta­ble en­deav­ors — and, in some cases, paid speak­ing gigs — the for­mer lead­ers don’t min­gle very of­ten, mak­ing a fu­neral in their group a big oc­ca­sion. Bonded by the pres­i­dency, they tend to ex­er­cise cau­tion in their com­ments about each other. Still, all the liv­ing for­mer pres­i­dents have aimed barbs — di­rectly or in­di­rectly — at Trump.

In a speech in Septem­ber, Obama slammed the “crazy stuff” com­ing out of the White House with­out di­rectly nam­ing Trump. Last year, the younger Bush made a speech that con­fronted many of the themes of Trump’s pres­i­dency with­out men­tion­ing him by name, cau­tion­ing that “big­otry seems em­bold­ened” and the na­tion’s pol­i­tics “seems more vul­ner­a­ble to con­spir­acy the­o­ries and out­right fab­ri­ca­tion.”

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