Monday, 10 Dec 2018

"Honorable, Kind, and Decent": Upon Death, Bush Becomes a Criterion for President Trump

Tributes to former President George H. W. Bush intervened this weekend, each in his own way, exposing the traps ahead for the current resident of the Oval Office.

Barack Obama, the 44th, remembered the 41st president as a "humble servant." "Honorable, courteous, and honest," these were the words Bill Clinton used to praise his immediate predecessor. The obsession with Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul D. Ryan, described Bush as "a remarkable person, leader with decency and integrity."

On Monday, Bush will return to Washington, where he will remain lying on the Capitol until Wednesday, where, as tradition dictates, Trump will attend the funeral of the former president at Washington's National Cathedral. It is unclear whether Trump will pronounce a eulogy.

At death, the presidents are not only measuring their achievements, but also what they say about the presidents in office – and in this case, the contrast is striking.

Trump seemed aware of the danger of being compared to a beloved predecessor. The intransigent and outsider president has often fought with the Bush family. On Saturday, he praised Bush's "common sense, common sense and flawless Bush leadership." He praised the fierce competition spirit of the former president, who demonstrated on the baseball field and in politics.

"President Bush has always found a way to raise the bar," said Trump.

Bush was the last president of the US war heroes, whose life was defined by congressional service, the State Department, the CIA and finally the White House. Born into an elite family, his father, a senator from Connecticut, he steeped himself in Washington's mores and customs from an early age. He preached the compromise, modesty and respect, if not respect, of the Washington institutions and even his somewhat obscure decision-making processes.

"He was an insider in the sense that he believed in public service and government," said Richard Haass, who served at Bush's White House. "He did not come to Washington to disturb. He came to improve. That's what he was.

Trump's mandate, on the other hand, has been defined by a war against virtually all the standards and institutions dear to Bush, especially the CIA.

Three months ago, a large portion of Washington officials, minus the president, gathered at the Washington National Cathedral for the funeral of Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). This ceremony celebrated McCain's life and his belief that America is a strong, moral and committed force on the world stage. In the end, it also served as a repudiation of Trump's politics and worldview.

This time, many expect something similar, if not so obvious.

Bush's life and presidency "may remind us that what we have is profoundly abnormal," said Eliot Cohen, senior official of George W. Bush's state department. "The great danger of the Trump presidency is the normalization of character traits and behaviors that would have been an absolute abomination for its predecessors."

The difference this time is that Washington is mourning not only a former congressman and veteran, but also a member of the most exclusive club of American democracy. Most presidential funerals have been an opportunity for presidents of yesterday and today to emphasize their common sense of patriotism, mission and purpose.

"It's impossible to hold this position without having special ties with those who have gone before," Clinton said in 1994 following the death of Richard M. Nixon, who was in many ways the opposite. A few hours after Nixon's death, Clinton thanked the former president for his "wise advice".

At the funeral of Gerald Ford in 2007, his former political rival, Jimmy Carter, recounted "the intense personal friendship" that united them.

Immediately after Bush's death, much of the coverage focused on his ties to Presidents Clinton and Obama. Clinton recounted the gracious and modest note that Bush had left him when he left the White House in 1992 in an article published for the Washington Post on Saturday.

"I'm hard on you," Bush had written.

Clinton recalled their friendship, forged during relief missions to Indonesia and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "I have cherished every opportunity to learn and laugh with him," wrote Clinton. "I just liked it."

Three days before Bush's death, Obama met with the former president at his home in Houston and "revived what was already a very warm friendship," in the words of a Bush spokesman.

It's hard to imagine Trump even sitting in a room with Clinton, whom he attacked as a corrupt aggressor of women and a "hypocrite" or Obama, who he labeled "Bad (or sick) guy." The two Democrats were equally critical of Trump, calling him a threat to American democracy. Trump's relationship with George W. Bush was tense in the same way.

For Trump, the funeral and the close presence of his commanders-in-chief could serve to emphasize his isolation.

The presidency of President Bush has been marked by extremely partisan moments. Her presidential campaign was accused of racial baiting in 1988 when she attacked Michael Dukakis, Bush's Democratic rival, for offering a weekend respite to Willie Horton, who raped a woman while she was released. from prison. On his deathbed, Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign leader, apologized for the ad.

The hearings surrounding Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court have presided over many bitter divisions of America.

But these days, Bush is best remembered for his moderation and his willingness to go beyond the alley. His compromise with the Democrats on a modest increase in taxes has helped to reduce the federal budget deficit, even though its popularity has dropped and the Republican Party has been created in a more radical way.

He praised the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union with stoic calm and unwavering.

When asked why he was not so enthusiastic, Bush told the press, "I'm just not a very emotional man."

He may be the last American president who has not been scorned by much of the American public. Part of this may have to do with the time that Bush ruled. He stood up through the Republican Party at a time when both parties were large tents, with liberal and conservative wings, before the Americans sided with ideological warring camps.

Part of his general acceptance was due to his style of governance.

"He was the embodiment of preparation, process and due diligence," said Peter Feaver, who served in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. "He believed in the importance of the expertise of the institution."

And some of them were the product of Bush's policy.

"Reasonable and moderate people do not encourage passion," Haass said.

All of these characteristics raise particular problems for Trump.

Trump did not attend Barbara Bush's funeral in April, attended by First Lady Melania Trump.

Bush's desire to include Trump at his funeral suggests that the president did not want his ultimate message to concern the current Oval Office occupier, but rather his life, his presidency, and his country.

This could be a difficult task at a time when the Trump presidency seems to overshadow almost every aspect of American life.

"The country is a little exhausted and the last thing people want or need is to add to the depletion of the next few days," Haass said. "The best thing for Trump and the country is that people say these are the most normal days of the Trump presidency."


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