Bush and Trump: A glaring contrast
Speakers salute former leader, avoid mention of troubled current chief
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump didn’t speak at the memorial service for President George H.W. Bush on Wednesday, and the eulogists who did speak addressed the congregation with the understanding that they wouldn’t challenge the current occupant of the Oval Office, seated in the front pew.
Even so, the contrast and the contradictions between the two were impossible to miss inside Washington National Cathedral, the inescapable subtext as one president was laid to rest and another headed into increasingly turbulent legal and political waters.
Intentionally or not, though, the words of praise for Bush resonated through the lens of the current president and the nation’s broken politics. While Trump revels in provocative tweets, disparaging nicknames, and a willingness to shatter political norms, Bush was remembered for modesty, courtesy and restraint.
Historian Jon Meacham, author of the definitive Bush biography, “Destiny and Power,” praised Bush’s “life code” in his eulogy. He “called on us to choose right over the convenient, hope over fear, not our worst impulses, but our best instincts.”
George W. Bush, the nation’s 43rd president, said his father “showed me what it means to be a president that leads with integrity.”
The 41st president and the 45th share some similarities: both Republicans, both born on the East Coast, both sons of privilege – one to a family with old money, one to a family with new. But in almost every other way imaginable, they are a study in contrasts, from personal demeanor to global outlook.
George Bush, who generally held his tongue after he left the White House, was alarmed by Trump’s political rise. “A blowhard,” he told historian Mark Updegrove in May 2016. That November, he cast his ballot for the first time not for the Republican presidential nominee but for the Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
Still, it was George H.W. Bush who decided Trump should be invited to his funeral, a sign of respect for the office.
But the fact that Trump didn’t speak was at odds with recent practice.
Even the body language among the exclusive club of presidents was chilly. When Trump arrived, he shook hands with the Obamas, but he didn’t acknowledge Bill or Hillary Clinton or Jimmy Carter.
Trump has done less to attack George H.W. Bush with his rhetoric. But in fundamental ways, he has disrupted the legacy that the elder Bush built. Trump has transformed the Republican Party to reflect his combative populism – indeed, the GOP summarily dismissed Jeb Bush’s bid for the presidential nomination in 2016.
Most of all, he has frayed the global alliances and institutions that Bush and other Cold War presidents labored to forge. Bush led the West in managing the peaceful end of the Cold War. He negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement that President Clinton then concluded. He laid the groundwork for the World Trade Organization.
Trump’s name was never mentioned, nor his troubles. All that went unsaid. “The most decent and honorable person I ever met,” former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson said in his eulogy. He added to laughter, “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington aren’t bothered by heavy traffic.”
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, and the other presidential couples, stand at the end of the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush at the Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday. JACK GRUBER/USA TODAY NETWORK