George Herbert Walker Bush, before his death, said he wanted President Trump to attend his funeral, a generous gesture that forgave the cavalcade of insults that Trump has rained on the Bush family.
It was a final show of the sound judgment Bush exercised in life.
Trump’s name was mentioned not once by the four eulogists at Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday. But their words were an implicit rebuke of everything Trump is. They spoke of what made Bush a great leader, which are the very traits that, by their absence, make Trump so woefully inadequate.
During his eulogy, Bush biographer Jon Meacham identified Bush’s “thousand points of light” — a phrase Trump has ridiculed — as a “companion verse” to Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature,” because “Lincoln and Bush both called on us to choose the right over the convenient, to hope rather than to fear, and to heed not our worst impulses, but our best instincts.”
And there, in the front pew, was Trump, who leads by stoking fear and confirming base impulses.
George W. Bush recalled of his father: “In victory, he shared credit. When he lost, he shouldered the blame.” Bush invoked his dad’s “unlikeliest” friendship with Bill Clinton as they went from opponents to “brothers from other mothers.”
Trump, a few seats from former president Clinton, alternated between folding arms impassively across his chest and leaning forward uncomfortably. Could he comprehend the ideas of giving credit, accepting blame or forgiving?
Bush friend Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming senator, said the 41st president “never hated anyone” and loyalty “coursed through his blood,” including a “loyalty to the institutions of government.” This must be incomprehensible to Trump, who dispenses hatred in 280-character increments, demands loyalty but offers none in return and trashes the institutions of government for sport.
And the current president, though not given to self-reflection, could not have missed the rebuke delivered by another eulogist, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, who praised Bush for negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (which Trump has called the “worst trade deal in history”); for environmentalism (which Trump derides); and for international leadership (which Trump dismisses).
“When George Bush was president,” Mulroney said, “every single head of government in the world knew that they were dealing with a gentleman, a genuine leader, one who was distinguished, resolute and brave.”
Can anybody imagine, in years hence, any world leader outside of dictators and strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman paying any tribute to the current president, much less one about gentlemanliness and bravery?
Bush’s funeral was so powerful a renunciation of his current successor because it was a celebration of character. Friendship was invoked 21 times by his eulogists. Loyalty, 10. “Honor,” “integrity,” “dignity,” “decency” and inner peace all recurred. Certainly, Bush could be a fierce partisan and a brutal politician (remember Willie Horton?), but his service in World War II — he was shot down over the Pacific — left him with lessons that fueled his generation’s greatness: The opposition is not the enemy. There are causes greater than self. Political defeat is not the worst thing. And American leadership in the world is indispensable.
Trump, for whom no cause is greater than self, must have struggled to sit through 90 minutes of something that was not all about him. Rather, it was all about what he is not.
Meacham, putting Bush’s leadership in the style of George Washington and both Roosevelts, recalled how he “spoke with those big, strong hands” (was he trolling Trump?) and stood against totalitarianism and blind partisanship. “And on his watch, a wall fell in Berlin, a dictator’s aggression did not stand, and doors across America opened to those with disabilities,” Meacham said, in front of a president who would build a wall, who winks at dictators and who publicly mocked a journalist’s disability.
Bush’s life code, Meacham said, began with “tell the truth” and “don’t blame people.” The truth-challenged, finger-pointing president could only listen.
Simpson continued the tacit contrasts, recalling Bush’s politically ruinous decision to strike a deal that raised taxes, because “it’s not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s for our country.”
The 43rd president predicted that history will remember his father as a “diplomat of unmatched skill” and “a gentleman who executed the duties of his office with dignity and honor.” It already does.
The younger Bush let out a sob as he closed, then gave his father’s casket a farewell pat. I choked up, too; for the decent and honorable leadership, now missing, that reflects the true greatness of America.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.