Farewell to 41

Chilly re­cep­tion marks gath­er­ing at Bush’s ser­vices

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Cather­ine Lucey and Zeke Miller

» Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump sits with fel­low pres­i­dents but is largely left out of the club.

WASH­ING­TON — 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 pres­i­dents 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.

Eu­lo­gies as coun­ter­points

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 ex­pres­i­dents 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 a pall on the con­ver­sa­tion. First lady Me­la­nia Trump ap­proached first, greet­ing both Oba­mas and for­mer Pres­i­dent Clin­ton with a hand­shake. Hil­lary Clin­ton ap­peared to nod at Mrs. Trump but did not in­ter­act with Trump him­self and stared straight ahead dur­ing the ser­vice. Jimmy Carter waved a hand. The pres­i­dent then shook hands with both Oba­mas be­fore tak­ing his seat.

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 coopted 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 ex­pres­i­dents from both par­ties dis­like a sit­ting pres­i­dent, and that’s what you’ve got hap­pen­ing right now,” said Dou­glas Brink­ley, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Rice Univer­sity.

Busy with a mix of per­sonal pur­suits, char­i­ta­ble en­deav­ors — and, in some cases, paid speak­ing gigs — the for­mer lead­ers don’t min­gle 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.

Thump­ing the in­cum­bent

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.”

Over the sum­mer, Carter told tthe Wash­ing­ton Post that Trump’s pres­i­dency was a “dis­as­ter.” And Clin­ton — stung by Trump’s de­feat of wife Hil­lary Clin­ton in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race — told a weekly news­pa­per in New York state after her stun­ning loss that Trump “doesn’t know much.”

Even the late Bush’s feel­ings about Trump were harsh at times. In Mark K. Upde­grove’s book “The Last Repub­li­cans,” pub­lished last year, the el­der Bush called Trump a “blowhard.”

The late Bush said he voted for Clin­ton in 2016 while Ge­orge W. Bush said he voted for “none of the above.”

There have been other mo­ments when the ex-pres­i­dents of­fered more sym­pa­thetic sen­ti­ments for Trump. After Trump’s sur­prise vic­tory, Obama stood in the Rose Gar­den at the White House and said he was “root­ing” for the next pres­i­dent. Carter told the New York Times in 2017 the me­dia had been harder on Trump than other pres­i­dents. Clin­ton said in June that Amer­ica should be root­ing for Trump to suc­ceed in his North Korea talks.

For­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush walks back to his seat after greet­ing the pres­i­den­tial row of the Trumps, Oba­mas, Clin­tons and Carters at the Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Cathe­dral on Wed­nes­day.

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