It's OK to celebrate a president's life. What will we make of Trump's?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump pay their respects in the Capitol rotunda where former President George H.W. Bush lies in state, Dec. 3, 2018. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images)

The Trump presidency is like a national cataract. It’s the filmy cloud through which we see pretty much everything now — history and identity, television and literature, family dinners and workplace friendships. Nothing emerges in the culture that isn’t somehow because of Trump or despite him, enabling or opposing.

And so it’s been with the death of George H.W. Bush, who will be laid to rest in his adoptive home of Texas today. Until recently, Bush’s single, not terrible term in office was mostly regarded as an ellipsis between one period of history and another.

But in this moment, of course, Bush’s death became another opportunity for us all to reflect on … Trump.

“In death, Bush becomes a yardstick for President Trump,” the Washington Post decreed in a headline two days after Bush’s passing. That piece, like much of the coverage and commentary leading up to Bush’s state funeral, focused on the former president’s reputation for being “honorable, gracious and decent,” in the words of Bill Clinton.

The famous Bush phrase “kinder and gentler” — which in his own time was mostly wielded as a sarcastic commentary on the cynicism of political rhetoric — became, in death, a dividing line between Bush’s traditional concept of conservatism and Trump’s bilious #meonly movement.

Inevitably, this led to a loud chorus of dissenters on the left, who pointed out that not only was Bush’s presidency plenty harsh in its own ways, but that it was an important crossroad for the party on the march toward Trumpism.

At Vox, the writer Anna North argued that Bush and Trump were almost indistinguishable in their Supreme Court nominations, with Clarence Thomas being the perfect template for Brett Kavanaugh. NBC’s website posted a piece reminding us that Bush championed his party’s “Southern strategy,” which the writer, Noah Berlatsky, called a precursor to Trump’s “gutter racism.”

I can see some merit in both sides of this debate, but to me it misses the more relevant point. Polls and elections measure the way we judge a president’s policies, during and after his tenure. What we recall in death is something different.

Yes, the remembrances over these past several days were heavily skewed toward hagiography. The rehabilitation of Bush that began during his son’s administration, when he started to look almost Lincolnian by comparison, came to completion this week when Evan Thomas, my former colleague at Newsweek, renounced the “wimp” label that the magazine infamously slapped on Bush back in 1987.

While virtually all the retrospectives noted Bush’s adventures as an aviator and oilman, few dwelled on his dynastic entitlement as the son of a wealthy Connecticut senator. The 41st president was about as self-made as his son, which is to say not at all.

And while the published eulogies made Bush sound ambivalent about his party’s sharp turn toward cultural division, the truth is that the Bushes outlasted all the other powerful Republican families of the 20th century — the Rockefellers, the Chafees, the Lodges — mainly because George H.W. was willing to sell out his principles rather than hold the line and lose.

It sure as hell wasn’t because he was a better natural politician than the rest of them.

But that’s all OK. Because we should celebrate our presidents when they die, and we should look past their flaws and their failures and their regrets. The death of a president isn’t about his politics, and shouldn’t be. It’s about his service.

There are rituals in the republic — bitter cold inaugurations, droning State of the Union addresses and convention speeches — that serve a larger purpose than the actual thing. They remind us that the people change but the system endures. That every president embodies, in his own way, the ideal of American self-governance.

A presidential funeral is similar. It’s a chance for us to remember that, no matter the performance of the president, no matter how off course he may have gotten or how discredited his theory of the moment, it takes essential humanity to lead.

And this is where the comparison to Bush — or to any other of his predecessors, really — becomes ominous for Trump, if he’s paying attention to such things.

Because let’s be honest: It was hard to watch Bush’s funeral proceedings this week, from the rotunda of the Capitol to the long journey back to Houston, and not wonder how Trump’s last farewell will someday, in the distant future, compare.

As I’ve written before, and it’s more apparent this week than usual, what’s really missing from Trump’s presidency isn’t an agenda or a strategy, although both are in short supply. It’s basic humanness.

It’s the sense that he can be moved to any emotion that isn’t anger, that he can be rallied to any cause other than himself.

We’ve had a lot of not great presidents, and some who were truly destructive. We’ve had old and young, sanctimonious and perfidious. But I’d argue that it’s hard to pluck any from the last century, at least, who weren’t basically good and didn’t ache to do good for the country.

Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were both unhealthy men, caged by insecurities and driven by demons. Fine. But there’s ample evidence to assure us that both of them cared deeply about the country and bore their obligations heavily.

I say this with no meanness or ideological brief, but rather with genuine human bafflement: Trump, alone among any presidents I can recall, exhibits no obvious sign of underlying goodness. There’s no heart to his presidency, no mirth or gratitude.

There is the scowl and the scapegoating, and strangely nothing more.

Can anyone imagine Trump, in retirement, writing “In the Arena,” Nixon’s joyous memoir of public life? Will any great biographer really think to undertake a serious, sprawling exploration of his character?

When Trump is laid to rest and the military guns salute, will the nation look beyond his politics and celebrate his life, the way we did this week? Or will we look around and ask each other what in God’s name that was all about?

Maybe the 41st president can be a Ghost of Christmas Future to the 45th. Maybe Trump has the capacity, having sat through the eulogies Wednesday but pointedly not having been asked to deliver one, to ponder the meaning of service and ask himself how he hopes to be remembered.

If that were George Herbert Walker Bush’s last service to the nation, it would certainly not be his least.

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