I’m not sure who said this, but it’s obviously true, and never more so than today: When a president dies, the funeral is not only about him. It’s also about whoever occupies the Oval Office at that moment.
And so we have this contrast:
In a moment of grace over the past summer, the Bush family let Donald Trump know he would be welcome at George H.W. Bush’s funeral. Since Trump was president, it was appropriate, the senior Bush felt strongly, for him to be there.
Trump — who was pointedly not invited to John McCain’s funeral — accepted the invitation. And he graciously tweeted praise of the elder Bush. But at the cathedral, he would be the one sitting at the end of the presidents’ row, often seen staring straight ahead, arms folded, mouth turned down. You couldn’t tell if he was angry or if he was uncomfortable or if it was just the way he always looked. In any case, it was definitely awkward.
When the Trumps arrived at the National Cathedral, Fox News’ Chris Wallace said it was like “a chill” had fallen over the front row where the former First Families were sitting and happily chatting among themselves. The row suddenly went silent. The Trumps shook hands with the Obamas, who were seated next to them. Michelle Obama’s face went cold immediately, though, after releasing Trump’s hand. Hillary Clinton never looked Trump’s way, though she did apparently nod to Melania. Bill looked over only for a moment. Trump made no attempt to address the Carters, who were at the other end of the row.
In a break with tradition, Trump wasn’t asked to speak at the funeral, and we were told it was because the president’s son would play that role. Bush 43 gave a moving speech, a love letter from son to father, and, as everyone expected, he sobbed as he finished. No one could imagine Trump, who recently mocked Bush 41’s signature thousand points of light — “What the hell is that?” Trump had asked — eulogizing Bush or any of his predecessors, each of whom sees him as a blight on the presidency.
Trump knew, as everyone knew, that he wasn’t really welcome, that he was an outsider and, to many, a pariah. And he knew, as he couldn’t help but know, that every bit of praise for Bush 41 at the ceremony would necessarily be seen as an implicit rebuke of him, whether intentional or not. He had heard the rumors, as we all had heard, that the senior Bush, of the Republican dynastic Bushes, might have even voted for Hillary Clinton for president.
Much of the talk at the funeral was of Bush’s integrity and of decency and of sacrifice, all qualities seen lacking in TrumpWorld. At McCain’s funeral, the Trump references were clear, as when George W. Bush said, “John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots.”
At Bush’s funeral, the references were not direct. They may not have been about Trump at all. And yet, no one could have heard the words only as praise for Bush.
As Bush biographer Jon Meacham, who was the first of four eulogists, said of his subject: “His life code, as he said, was, ‘Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.’ And that was, and is, the most American of creeds.”
Bush was overpraised, of course. It’s what happens at all funerals, but particularly at those where the eulogists have to compete with the outsize pomp of the ceremony. And in the days leading up to the funeral, cable TV news would all but canonize Bush because that’s what happens on cable TV. He was beloved by Americans, we heard, when, in truth, people more likely thought of him fondly.
For the record, he wasn’t a great president, as some would say. History will likely judge him as a fair president — particularly for one who made it through only one term — who was at his best at international relations, particularly at the time of the Soviet collapse and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
His eulogists would praised him for his humility, for being the last soldier-statesman, for being the kind of president who could say he wanted a kinder, gentler politics. But, if a good man, he was one whose integrity could give way to ambition. Toward that ambition, in the worst example, one not easily reconciled or forgiven, he would give over his 1988 presidential campaign to political operative Lee Atwater. The tenor of the campaign led to the infamous racist Willie Horton ad — actually produced by an independent group — which tied Mike Dukakis to an African-American murderer who, while on a furlough from a Massachusetts prison, had raped a white woman and stabbed her boyfriend.
On his deathbed, Atwater apologized for saying he would make Horton into Dukakis’s running mate. I never heard Bush apologize for a campaign message that Trump could easily have embraced. As many have noted, the patrician Bush, who truly believed in the concept of noblesse oblige, also believed in farming out the dirty work to the help.
But in most other ways, Bush was everything Trump is not. Maybe the best story I heard on Bush came via Meacham. After giving the eulogy, Meacham told NBC’s Willie Geist that he had read the words to Bush a few days before he had died.
And upon hearing the planned eulogy, Bush had said: “That’s an awful lot about me, Jon.”