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‘Honorable, gracious and decent’: In death, Bush becomes a yardstick for President Trump

In this photo from Jan. 7, 2009, former president George H.W. Bush, left, joins President-elect Barack Obama, President George W. Bush, former president Bill Clinton and former president Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The tributes to former president George H.W. Bush poured in this weekend, each in their own way exposing the pitfalls ahead this week for the Oval Office’s current resident.

The 41st president was remembered by Barack Obama, the 44th, as “a humble servant.” “Honorable, gracious and decent” were the words Bill Clinton used in praise of his immediate predecessor. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s encomium described Bush as “great in his character, leading with decency and integrity.”

George H.W. Bush, 41st president of the United States, dies at 94

On Monday, Bush will return to Washington, where he will lie in state at the Capitol until Wednesday when, as tradition demands, Trump will attend the former president’s funeral at Washington National Cathedral. It’s unclear whether Trump will deliver a eulogy.

Journalists, friends and former administration officials shared their memories about President George H.W. Bush on Dec. 2, after his death Nov. 30. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

In death, presidents are measured not only by their accomplishments but by what their tenure says about sitting presidents — and in this case, the contrast appears stark.

Trump seemed aware of the perils of being compared to a beloved predecessor. The brash, outsider president has often sparred with the Bush family. On Saturday, he praised Bush’s “sound judgment, common sense and unflappable leadership.” He hailed the former president’s fiercely competitive spirit, which showed on the baseball diamond and in politics.

“President Bush always found a way to set the bar higher,” Trump said.

Bush was America’s last war hero president, whose life was defined by service in Congress, the State Department, the CIA and finally the White House. Born into an elite family, his father a senator from Connecticut, he soaked up the mores and customs of Washington from a young age. He preached compromise, modesty and respect, if not reverence, for Washington’s institutions and even its somewhat arcane policymaking processes.

In Buenos Aires Dec. 1, President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke about the death of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States. (Video: The Washington Post)

“He was an insider in the sense that he believed in public service and government,” said Richard Haass, who served in the Bush White House. “He didn’t come to Washington to disrupt. He came to improve. That’s who he was.”

Trump’s time in office, by contrast, has been defined by a war on virtually all of the norms and institutions that Bush held dear, especially the CIA.

Three months ago, much of official Washington, minus the president, gathered at Washington National Cathedral for the funeral of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). That ceremony celebrated McCain’s life and his belief in America as a robust, moral and engaged force on the global stage. Ultimately, it also served as a repudiation of Trump’s politics and worldview.

McCain’s funeral was a melancholy last hurrah for what’s been lost in Trump era

This time around, many expect something similar, if not quite as overt.

Bush’s life and presidency “can be a reminder that what we’ve got is profoundly abnormal,” said Eliot Cohen, who served as a senior official in 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 to his predecessors.”

The difference this time is that Washington is mourning not only a veteran and former congressman, but a member of the most exclusive club in American democracy. Most presidential funerals have provided an opportunity for presidents past and present to stress their shared sense of patriotism, mission and purpose.

“It’s impossible to be in this job without feeling a special bond with the people who have gone before,” Clinton said in 1994 following the death of Richard M. Nixon, who in many ways represented Clinton’s polar opposite. From a darkened White House just hours after Nixon’s death, Clinton thanked the former president for his “wise counsel.”

At Gerald Ford’s funeral in 2007, his onetime political rival, Jimmy Carter, recounted the “intense personal friendship” that bound them together.

In the immediate aftermath of Bush’s death, much of the coverage touched on his bond with presidents Clinton and Obama. Clinton recounted the gracious and modest note that Bush left him upon departing the White House in 1992 in a piece for The Washington Post published Saturday.

Bill Clinton: George H.W. Bush’s Oval Office note to me revealed the heart of who he was

“I am rooting hard for you,” Bush had written.

Clinton recalled their friendship, forged during relief missions in Indonesia and New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. “I cherished every opportunity I had to learn and laugh with him,” Clinton wrote. “I just loved him.”

Three days before Bush’s death, Obama met with the former president at his home in Houston and “rekindled what was already a very warm friendship” in the words of a spokesman for Bush.

It’s hard to envision Trump even sitting in a room with Clinton, whom he has attacked as a corrupt abuser of women and a “hypocrite” or Obama, whom he labeled “bad (or sick) guy.” The two Democrats have been just as critical of Trump, branding him as a threat to American democracy. Trump’s relationship with George W. Bush has been similarly strained.

For Trump, the funeral and the presence of his fellow commanders in chief together in close proximity could serve to highlight his isolation.

The elder Bush’s presidency was marked by some bitterly partisan moments. His presidential campaign was accused of race-baiting in 1988 when it attacked Michael Dukakis, Bush’s Democratic rival, for providing a weekend furlough to Willie Horton, who raped a woman while free from jail. On his deathbed, Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign manager, apologized for the ad.

The hearings surrounding Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court presaged many of America’s bitter divides.

But these days, Bush is remembered mostly for his moderation and willingness to reach across the aisle. His compromise with the Democrats on a modest tax hike helped rein in the federal budget deficit even as it caused his popularity to plummet and helped give rise to a more radical Republican Party.

He greeted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union with a stoic and steadfast calm.

Asked why he wasn’t more elated, Bush told reporters: “I’m just not an emotional kind of guy.”

He may be the last U.S. president who wasn’t despised by a big chunk of the American public. Some of that may have to do with the era in which Bush governed. He rose up through the Republican Party at a time when both parties were big tents, consisting of liberal and conservative wings, before Americans had sorted themselves out into warring ideological camps.

Some of his broad acceptance was traceable to his style of governance.

“He was the epitome 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 establishment expertise.”

And some of it was a product of Bush’s brand of politics.

“Reasonable, moderate people don’t incite passion,” Haass said.

All of these traits raise particular problems for Trump.

Trump did not attend Barbara Bush’s funeral in April, which was attended by first lady Melania Trump.

Barbara and George Bush’s love story remembered at her funeral

Bush’s desire to include Trump at his funeral suggests that the president didn’t want his final send-off to be about the current occupant of the Oval Office, but rather about his life, his presidency and his country.

That could be a tall order at a moment when the Trump presidency seems to overshadow just about every aspect of American life.

“The country is a bit exhausted and the last thing people want or need is for the next few days to add to the exhaustion,” Haass said. “The best thing for Trump and the country is for people to say these were the most normal days of the Trump presidency.”