Bush and Trump: A contrast impossible to miss
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 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 subtext as one president was laid to rest and another headed into increasingly turbulent legal and political waters.
Intentionally or not, the words of praise for Bush resonated through the lens of the current president and the nation’s broken politics. Trump revels in provocative tweets, disparaging nicknames and a willingness to shatter political norms. Bush was remembered for personal characteristics of
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. In almost every other way imaginable, they are a study in contrasts, from personal demeanor to global outlook.
George H.W. 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, for the first time, he cast his ballot not for the Republican presidential nominee but for the Democratic ri- val, Hillary Clinton.
Still, it was Bush who decided Trump should be invited to his funeral, a sign of his respect for the office. Excluding Trump would have been a jarring break with precedent and the sort of public disrespect Bush avoided.
Trump also followed the protocol of presidents by declaring Wednesday a national day of mourning, sending Air Force One to carry Bush’s family and his body from Texas to Washington and back and inviting the Bush family to stay in Blair House, the guest house across from the White House.
The fact that Trump didn’t speak was at odds with recent practice. President George W. Bush spoke at Ronald Reagan’s funeral. President Bill Clinton spoke at Richard Nixon’s. “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close,” Clinton said of the president forced from office.
This time, even the body language among the exclusive club of presidents was decidedly chilly. When Trump arrived, he shook hands with the Obamas, but he didn’t acknowledge Bill or Hillary Clinton or Jimmy Carter. Hillary Clinton didn’t look his way, either.
Trump did less to attack George H.W. Bush with his rhetoric, but in fundamental ways, he has disrupted the legacy the elder Bush built. Trump has transformed the Republican Party to reflect his combative populism.
Most of all, Trump has frayed the global alliances and institutions that Bush and other Cold War presidents labored to forge.
Seated in the pews at Washington National Cathedral were past and present presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens, a reflection of the personal relationships Bush cultivated.
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, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
From left, President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter attend George H.W. Bush’s funeral.