A chill in the cathedral
Trump joins his predecessors.
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump stared straight ahead. Former President Bill Clinton scanned the program. Former President Jimmy Carter checked his watch.
The atmosphere at the rare meeting of the president with his predecessors at the funeral of George H.W. Bush on Wednesday was chilly. Trump shook hands with former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama, did not engage with Bill or Hillary Clinton and promptly took his seat at the end of the row.
As Trump arrived, Hillary Clinton – his 2016 opponent and the subject of the president’s taunts – did not glance his way.
The funeral at Washington National Cathedral brought together the current and all former living presidents. All but former President George W. Bush sat with their spouses in a front row. Before Trump’s arrival, they chatted amicably.
Bush, who sat with family members at his father’s funeral, broke the solemnity, offering gregarious handshakes to Trump and all of the former presidents and their spouses. He handed what appeared to be a piece of candy to Michelle Obama, a tradition between the two. The Obamas laughed in response. Bush gave the former first lady a mint this year at the funeral of Sen. John McCain, a moment Obama described warmly.
“He is my partner in crime at every major thing where all the formers gather,” Obama told NBC. “So we’re together all the time, and I love him to death. He’s a wonderful man.”
Former presidents have come together only occasionally over the past several decades, typically for a funeral or to celebrate the opening of a president’s library at the end of his term. Historians said the presidents club symbolizes unity in times of division.
Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University, said the tradition dates back to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who rekindled a friendship through letters they made public after the bitterly contested 1800 election drove them apart.
“George H.W. Bush epitomizes the presidents club and the idea that you try, once you leave office, to be nice to the people who come after you,” Brinkley said.
Trump has had an acrimonious relationship with the Bush family, criticizing George H.W. Bush and his sons. The Bush family invited Trump to attend the funeral, but he did not speak. George W. Bush eulogized his father.
The funeral was the first time Hillary Clinton and Trump were together since his inauguration last year after their antagonistic presidential race. Trump continues to call for an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
During the campaign, Trump derided his opponent as “Crooked Hillary” and a “nasty woman.” Crowds at his political rallies before this year’s midterm election chanted “lock her up” at the mention of her name.
Presidents have often been at odds with each other. Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman didn’t speak for years. Historians said no previous chief executive has spoken as publicly and as harshly about predecessors as Trump has. “Not even close,” said Mark Updegrove, who has written books on Lyndon Johnson and the Bush family.
Trump “entered the White House on a trail of scorched earth,” he said.
United in this if nothing else, the Trumps, Obamas, Clintons and Carters gathered to honor George H.W. Bush.