Bush and Trump: A con­trast im­pos­si­ble to miss

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WASH­ING­TON – Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump didn’t speak at the me­mo­rial ser­vice for 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 in­escapable 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 ri­val, Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Still, it was Bush who de­cided Trump should be in­vited to his fu­neral, a sign of his re­spect for the of­fice. (When his wife, Bar­bara, died in April, only first lady Me­la­nia Trump at­tended the fu­neral ser­vice in Hous­ton.) Ex­clud­ing Trump would have been a jar­ring break with prece­dent and the sort of pub­lic dis­re­spect Bush stead­fastly 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 fam­ily to stay in Blair House, the gov­ern­ment guest house across from the White House.

The fact that Trump didn’t speak at the ser­vice was at odds with re­cent prac­tice. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush spoke at Ron­ald Rea­gan’s fu­neral. Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton spoke at Richard Nixon’s, a mo­ment of na­tional heal­ing. “May the day of judg­ing Pres­i­dent Nixon on any­thing less than his en­tire life and ca­reer come to a close,” Clin­ton said.

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; he la­beled her “Crooked Hil­lary” at a hun­dred cam­paign ral­lies. Last week, Trump retweeted a fake photo that showed the Clin­tons and Barack Obama be­hind bars for “trea­son.”

Trump did less to at­tack Ge­orge H.W. Bush with his rhetoric, but in funda- men­tal ways, he has dis­rupted the legacy the el­der Bush built. Trump trans­formed the Repub­li­can Party to re­flect his com­bat­ive pop­ulism. Trump has largely re­jected the sort of care­ful bi­par­ti­san com­pro­mise that marked Bush’s ne­go­ti­a­tions that led to land­mark do­mes­tic leg­is­la­tion, in­clud­ing the Clean Air Act and the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act.

Most of all, Trump 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 con­cluded. He laid the ground­work for the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Those are among the in­sti­tu­tions that Trump de­cries as an op­por­tu­nity for for­eign coun­tries to take ad­van­tage of the United States. At the G-20 meet­ing in Buenos Aires, Ar­gentina, last week, he de­clared the death of NAFTA in fa­vor of a rene­go­ti­ated treaty. He in­sisted that the sum­mit’s fi­nal com­mu­nique crit­i­cize the WTO.

That ap­proach to global af­fairs could hardly be more dif­fer­ent from the one Bush fol­lowed.

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. Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel was there; she has praised Bush as “one of the fa­thers of the Ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion.” For­mer Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Brian Mul­roney, Bush’s friend and con­fi­dante as the pres­i­dent built a multi­na­tional coali­tion to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, de­liv­ered one of the eu­lo­gies.

Mul­roney and the other eu­lo­gists stood at a small podium set up in front of the pew where Trump was seated, al­most face to face.

“Fifty or 100 years from now, as his­to­ri­ans re­view the ac­com­plish­ments and the con­text of all who have served as pres­i­dent ... I be­lieve it will be said that no oc­cu­pant of the Oval Of­fice was more coura­geous, more prin­ci­pled and more hon­or­able than Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush,” the for­mer prime min­is­ter said. He made a point of prais­ing NAFTA, a fre­quent tar­get of Trump’s.

Trump’s name was never men­tioned, nor his trou­bles – the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 cam­paign and the spec­ta­cle of his for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and his long­time per­sonal lawyer scram­bling to avoid jail time by co­op­er­at­ing with the in­quiry into pos­si­ble col­lu­sion with Moscow. 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.”

It was Bush who de­cided

Trump should be in­vited to

his fu­neral, a sign of his re

spect for the of­fice.

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