USA TODAY’s Rich Wolf discusses the service for George H.W. Bush at the Washington National Cathedral, featuring a gathering of all living presidents.
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump didn’t speak at the memorial service for former 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 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 Bush 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 of the president forced from office amid scandal.
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.”
Former president Barack Obama and President Donald Trump shake hands during George H.W. Bush’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral.
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 transformed the Republican Party to reflect his combative populism – indeed, the GOP summarily dismissed Jeb Bush’s bid for the presidential nomination in 2016. Trump has largely rejected the sort of careful bipartisan compromise that marked George H.W. 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 international 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 Canadian prime minister said. He made a point of praising NAFTA, a frequent target of Trump.
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 aren’t bothered by heavy traffic.”
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