For that, we can thank the late former president Bush, no fan of Trump. By insisting on his successor’s inclusion in the proceedings, Bush forced the current White House occupant to briefly abandon his unfrozen cave-man act, denying him the chance to further debase the office of president by siphoning the dignity out of 41’s final hours in D.C. — something 45 likely would have relished, given the opportunity.
Recall that Trump skipped former first lady Barbara Bush’s funeral earlier this year to “avoid disruptions due to added security” (read: to avoid a scene) and “out of respect” for the Bushes, with first lady Melania Trump attending solo.
A few months later, Trump was relegated to golfing and tweeting, miles away, after being asked to stay away from Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) funeral (read: given the finger), during which Trump was rebuffed by Meghan McCain, who affirmed, “America was always great,” turning the president’s shallow campaign slogan on its head while her father was eulogized by former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
You could hardly have blamed the Bush family, then, if they had asked Trump to keep his distance from the elder Bush’s memorial, considering Trump’s attacks on the younger former president Bush’s record, Trump’s swipes at former governor Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) and the reality that Trump’s gimcrack persona is an affront to Bush père’s evident character. Bush personified noblesse oblige; Trump is an avatar of the lowest common denominator. And Trump might have half-expected, if not outright welcomed, such a rejection, as it would have given him an opening to abrasively tweet about the Bush legacy, employing Trump’s patented Twitter formula: insulting nickname, distracting punctuation, malapropism, logical fallacy, self-own, hit send.
But in his final wishes, the late former president put the dignity of the office and, by extension, the nation’s dignity, above all, knowing that the passing of a president is a rare occasion and, even in passing, any chance to demonstrate honor and decorum would provide a welcome contrast to this divided political moment. As Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley told People magazine, Bush “does not want to stiff a sitting president.” Wouldn’t be prudent.
Bush proved right. Lacking a snub from which to pivot, Trump did the only thing he could do as a member of the now-five-member living president’s club: He issued an appropriate official statement on Bush’s passing, largely steered clear of the week’s Bush remembrances and showed up for the funeral at which he had no speaking role. Even his scowling abstention from the Apostles' Creed — which all the other presidents recited — couldn’t detract from a solemn ceremony.
It was a brief political win-win. Bush, the last president to serve in combat, a former congressman, ambassador, CIA director and vice president, could be laid to rest with decorum, and Trump — Cadet Bone Spurs, decorated veteran of Studio 54 — was mostly spared another unflattering comparison to an American hero.
But not completely spared. Trump saw himself eclipsed by the memory of a superior man and his anti-statesmanship outshined by the disdained values of a presently defunct GOP, whose passing we collectively view with increasing regret.
A president who nurtures only his ego saw people from both parties turn out to honor a president who understood the line between partisanship and pragmatism. Trump, a man who exists in a purely transactional bubble, had to sit and listen to stories of friendships that spanned decades, a loving marriage that began before Trump was born, Bush’s commitment to family and his total comfort with the person he was. As to this contrast, the record doesn’t whisper; it screams.
No one in attendance at Washington National Cathedral or watching on TV could have mistaken the difference between Trump’s caustic brand of nationalism and Bush’s patriotism: He flew more than 50 combat missions during World War II. He served when called, over and over. He was a man of deeds, not boasts.
His example wasn’t meant for Trump alone. As he is laid to rest, Bush reminds us that when the studio audience tires of the reality show, a better, kinder, more American style of leadership might one day return. That true patriotism, honor and devotion to family are models of a life well lived, in and after politics. George H.W. Bush’s lifetime of service was capped by one last selfless act, a final gift to the country he served so well. He knew exactly what he was doing by opting not to exclude Trump from his funeral; he controlled the uncontrollable.
Correction: This article previously referred to President Trump as former president Bush’s predecessor. Trump is Bush’s successor.