America’s Funeral

Wednesday, December 5, 2018, was cold and bleak back in Washington. It rained here in Los Angeles. Things were dismal everywhere, and the day before the markets had crashed. The Dow fell eight hundred points. And the Trump presidency seemed to be imploding. Robert Mueller seems to have the goods on Trump and his crew and was closing in, and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia did order the murder of a journalist who had offended him. No one believed our president, not even Republicans, our president who had said otherwise, and tariffs and trade wars are dangerous and no one wins there. That’s why the markets tanked. Trump had called himself Tariff Man – but the markets were closed for the day. No fortunes would be lost, for at least one day.

America paused. It was an official day of mourning. There was that funeral. Maybe it was America’s funeral. That’s what Greg Jaffe implies here:

The men who came to eulogize former president George H. W. Bush spoke of the 41st president and the American presidency on Wednesday in broad and magisterial terms. He was “the last great soldier statesman” in the words of his biographer. A former Canadian prime minister recalled Bush as the leader of the “greatest democratic republic that God has ever placed on this earth.”

But the words of praise for Bush seemed to contrast with a jarring reality: A generation after he left office, the presidency has become all-consuming in American life, yet it has also never seemed smaller and more prone to failure.

“The public interest in the presidency is sky high,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “But the institution of the president has shrunk. It’s becoming a tawdry kind of thing.”

Presidents used to be heroes – Washington and Lincoln and, before he was president, Eisenhower. Then they were celebrities, like Reagan, who became presidential. And now it’s a celebrity who won’t or can’t become even vaguely presidential for more than thirty seconds. Maybe that’s him. Maybe it’s the office. The presidency itself is a tawdry kind of thing now. It’s not Trump. George H. W. Bush may have been the last pre-celebrity president. But there is Trump:

The smallness (and meanness) was evident the moment President Trump entered Washington National Cathedral for Bush’s state funeral, shed his overcoat and took a seat with his fellow commanders in chief.

Trump briefly shook hands with former president Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. Beyond that exchange, the four presidents in the front row seemed incapable of even fleeting contact. Former president Bill Clinton glanced quickly in Trump’s direction and then looked away. Rather than shake Trump’s hand, former president Jimmy Carter checked his watch.

Trump, with his arms folded across his chest, stared stoically throughout, as traits of his predecessor, so different from his own, were praised.

The differences were obvious:

More than with most recent presidents, Bush’s instincts at home drove him toward bipartisan compromise on issues as disparate as the budget and the environment. Overseas, he labored to build broad-based alliances… Today, American presidents have largely given up on such bipartisan sentiments, and cross-party compromises on anything of substance have become rare. Obama passed health-care reform without any support from Republicans. Trump’s tax bill passed without the benefit of a single Democrat’s backing.

Perhaps only Obama was like this Bush, but the presidency had changed:

In speeches near the end of his term, Obama talked of trying to reach across America’s growing divide – even if his efforts were sometimes disparaged by critics as halfhearted or insincere. “I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide,” he said in his final State of the Union address. “But I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

Trump, in his rallies and speeches, has largely dispensed with even the appearance of trying, opting for a posture closer to all-out war with his political opponents. That has made it far easier for his opponents to dismiss him as not their president, and for the presidency itself to diminish in breadth.

But don’t blame Trump:

To many historians, the Trump presidency is a reflection of the larger problems with the country and the office.

“The modern presidency has gotten out of control,” Leon Panetta, who served as Clinton’s chief of staff and Obama’s defense secretary, told the Atlantic magazine earlier this year. Presidents, he argued, are confronted by too many crises. Instead of solving big problems in the country, they are focused on dozens, if not hundreds, of disasters of the moment.

Others blame the seeming smallness of the office on the relative magnitude of the problems facing recent presidents. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has spanned an unheard-of three presidencies, with no end in sight. And then there’s global warming, which some Democratic presidents have described as an existential threat, only to be dismissed by Republicans who call it a hoax or junk science.

“How does a president appear magisterial on a topic like global warming?” said Jeremi Suri, author of “The Impossible Presidency” and a historian at the University of Texas at Austin. “The problem is so big and the president has so little control.”

That’s because things have changed:

Today, presidents face a far more divided landscape than Bush would’ve ever conceived possible. Today, Clinton’s tough on crime stance and embrace of free trade have made him increasingly unpopular within his party, which has shifted to the left. Bush’s focus on environmental protection, global alliances and extending protections to Americans with disabilities would get him disowned in today’s Republican Party.

The absence of voters in the middle has made it almost impossible for presidents to break through the gridlock on any issue of substance. “Presidents are playing a game of speaking to empowered groups and not to the public interest,” Suri said.

It wasn’t always that way. John F. Harris is editor-in-chief of Politico and author of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House and he notes this:

The memorial service for George H. W. Bush was a perfectly civil and eminently civilized event, and if one was listening in a literal-minded way it all sounded like a grand exception to life in modern Washington – two hours of stories and tributes that were entirely bereft of political tension. The only way to listen in a literal frame of mind, of course, was through some equivalent of self-lobotomy – to be willfully oblivious of context, guileless in a way that certainly does not describe Bush or any of the people he chose to speak at his farewell.

The service was replete with praise for the 41st president that could, with just the slightest nudge of interpretation, be heard as implied rebuke of the 45th president. But only implied, never explicit – this, unlike almost everything else in American politics today, was not about Donald Trump. And yet it very much was.

It was simple contrast:

Speakers rhapsodized about Bush’s natural good cheer and optimism; his willingness to share credit and accept blame; his preference for self-deprecating humor; his gift for personal diplomacy; his loyalty to friends when they were down; his talent at assembling international coalitions; his mistrust of “unthinking partisanship”; his inaugural address in which he said that Americans must judge our lives by kindness to friends and neighbors rather than the pursuit of “a bigger car, a bigger bank account”; his commitment to truth and to living up to the obligations of a “gentleman.”

Who wouldn’t admire these traits? Or expect that any president should try to emulate them?

And that was deadly:

To be political while sounding apolitical is a lost art in contemporary times, and it would be hard for President Trump to claim injury because his name was never mentioned. President George W. Bush – who, like his father, broke with his party in not supporting Trump – swerved skillfully around that by starting his remarks by thanking “distinguished guests” and then, with seeming emphasis, adding “including our presidents and first ladies” but mentioning none of them by name.

Was that a slight? If so, it was subtle:

Three months ago, the same space – the Washington National Cathedral – hosted another memorial service after the passing of Sen. John McCain. Like Bush, he had the lead time to carefully plan his own service, which became weaponized after a dying McCain made clear that he did not want the man who derided him for having been captured in Vietnam to be present. The Bush family, by contrast, was willing to set aside its disdain for Trump – the taunts of “low-energy” Jeb, the relentless criticism of George W’s Iraq war. Whether out of respect for the office or a desire to avoid another politicized Washington funeral, they made it clear that their leader had very much wanted the current president to be there, and in remarks in recent days family members had emphasized that Trump has been “very gracious.”

Assuming that comment to be entirely sincere, it is still a shrewdly effective way to shift the week’s events toward ground – polite, decorous, devoid of controversy – that is hardly Trump’s natural terrain. One supposes that he was not sorry when the plane that is normally Air Force One lifted off to carry the 41st president back to Texas for burial, allowing Washington to return to normal business for the first time since Friday evening.

That’s likely, but Dana Milbank saw this:

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?

And there was more:

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.”

No more needed to be said, but for this:

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.

There was no escape, and Philip Rucker saw this:

From the moment he crossed the transept of the soaring Washington National Cathedral, tore off his overcoat and took his seat in the front pew, President Trump was an outsider.

When the others sang an opening hymn, his mouth did not move. When the others read the Apostles’ Creed, he stood stoically. And when one eulogist after another testified to George H. W. Bush’s integrity and character and honesty and bravery and compassion, Trump sat and listened, often with his lips pursed and his arms crossed over his chest.

He had no choice:

By 10:49 a.m., when Trump and first lady Melania Trump stepped into the cathedral, a cool hush had come over the pews filled by American dignitaries and foreign leaders, past and present. Trump handed his black overcoat to a military aide and took his seat on the aisle next to his wife, with three past presidents and first ladies seated to her side.

First was the president Trump said was illegitimate (Barack Obama); then the first lady he called a profligate spender of taxpayer dollars (Michelle Obama); then the president he called the worst abuser of women (Bill Clinton); then the first lady and secretary of state he said should be in jail (Hillary Clinton); and then the president he said was the second-worst behind Obama (Jimmy Carter) and his wife, Rosalynn.

Trump despises them all, but Rucker notes that Trump despises them on principle:

As he assumed the presidency, Bush summoned all Americans to create a “kinder” and “gentler” nation – a message that Trump, then a Manhattan real estate developer and tabloid celebrity, found lacking.

“I like George Bush very much and support him and always will,” Trump said in a 1990 interview with Playboy. “But I disagree with him when he talks of a kinder, gentler America. I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist.”

There are those who say that if the country gets any more like Trump it will cease to exist – but perhaps this was a funeral for that kinder and gentler America – and a funeral for what the presidency used to be.

But then it was back to business, as Asawin Suebsaeng and Lachlan Markay report here:

Since the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s aides and advisers have tried to convince him of the importance of tackling the national debt. Sources close to the president say he has repeatedly shrugged it off, implying that he doesn’t have to worry about the money owed to America’s creditors – currently about $21 trillion – because he won’t be around to shoulder the blame when it becomes even more untenable.

The friction came to a head in early 2017 when senior officials offered Trump charts and graphics laying out the numbers and showing a “hockey stick” spike in the national debt in the not-too-distant future. In response, Trump noted that the data suggested the debt would reach a critical mass only after his possible second term in office.

“Yeah, but I won’t be here,” the president bluntly said, according to a source who was in the room when Trump made this comment during discussions on the debt.

He’s no George H. W. Bush, but he is sort of a realist:

The Washington Post recently reported that Trump had instructed his Cabinet to devise plans to trim their budgets in an effort to reduce the federal deficit. But Trump also set strict limits on what sorts of programs could be cut – and quickly proceeded to propose increased spending in other areas of the federal government.

“He understands the messaging of it,” the former senior White House official told The Daily Beast. “But he isn’t a doctrinaire conservative who deeply cares about the national debt, especially not on his watch… It’s not actually a top priority for him… He understands the political nature of the debt but it’s clearly not, frankly, something he sees as crucial to his legacy.”

There is his legacy, and Heather Parton:

I don’t really care about deficits much either, especially when they grow as a result of an economic downturn. That’s how the economy is managed to avoid as much human misery as possible. But consciously exploding the deficit in good times is actually a Republican trick going way back, even if Trump is taking it to extremes… Their goal is to deconstruct the welfare state whenever possible and one way to do that is to sabotage the economy and then hold vital programs hostage to the deficits they caused. And they can blame the Democrats for doing it! So much winning!

Trump has a completely different motive, of course. He just wants to be Santa Claus for his cult and doesn’t care what happens to the country in any case.

He’s no George H. W. Bush, and Steve Kornacki tells that story:

It became the most famous broken promise in modern political history.

George H. W. Bush made it inside the New Orleans Superdome on Aug. 18, 1988. He was there to accept the Republican presidential nomination and to launch his fall campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis.

“My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes, but I will,” Bush said. “And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say, ‘No.’ And they’ll push, and I’ll say, ‘No.’ And they’ll push again, and I’ll say to them, ‘Read my lips: No new taxes!'”

By channeling Dirty Harry, Bush hoped to put to rest once and for all two of the biggest doubts about his candidacy. From the right, there remained deep skepticism about his commitment to the conservative cause; among the public at large, there remained a stubborn image problem – “the wimp factor,” as a Newsweek cover had memorably put it a few months earlier.

In the short term, it succeeded brilliantly.

And then it didn’t:

Two years later, President Bush found himself in a budgetary jam. The boom economy of the Reagan years was slowing, interest rates were climbing and annual deficits, already up drastically over the last decade, were exploding. Just as Bush had predicted in his speech, Congress, with its big Democratic majorities, pressed him to raise taxes. But there was no climactic stare-down. Instead, Bush said he’d go along with the demand.

It kicked off what was known as the budget summit, months of negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders from both parties. This was the way, generally speaking, of Bush’s generation of leaders, compromise over confrontation.

The grand bargain was announced in the Rose Garden on the last of September 1990: Democrats would get hikes in the gas tax and other excise taxes and Republicans would get spending cuts, including a chunk from Medicare – a big, bipartisan deal that would, supposedly, slash deficits and steady the economy.

And then it fell apart:

The top-ranking Republicans on Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and House Minority Leader Robert Michel, stood with Bush at the ceremony. But there were others in the GOP, more than Bush had ever realized, who saw this as a betrayal by the president – not just of his own promise but of everything their party had come to stand for.

The Republican Party of the old days had prioritized balancing the budget, even if it meant higher taxes, but Ronald Reagan’s revolution had upended all of that. In his 1980 campaign, Reagan embraced the newly popular concept of supply-side economics, which claimed that tax cuts, by unleashing economic growth, could actually produce more government revenue.

The idea was ridiculed as “voodoo economics” by Reagan’s chief opponent in the ’80 GOP race, a moderate named George Bush, whose strong showing in the primaries landed him the VP slot on Reagan’s ticket. Bush spent the next eight years refashioning himself as a Reagan loyalist and making peace with the ascendant conservative wing, but the right remained on guard – hence the “Read my lips!” pledge.

By breaking that promise, Bush was validating all of those old suspicions.

So be it. The deal fell apart and a new version was hammered out:

A majority of Republicans sided with Newt Gingrich and broke with their own president. The deal died, and the final tally wasn’t even close. The blow was humiliating for Bush, who then cut a new deal, this time slanted even more heavily to Democrats’ demands. Finally, with Gingrich and much of the GOP still up in arms, the package passed and Bush signed it.

And he lost the next election. There would be no second term for him, but the higher tax rates from 1990 and 1993 helped bring in a revenue windfall:

By 1998, the country even ran a surplus for the first time in decades, and the elimination of the national debt actually seemed in sight… In 2014, as Bush neared 90, the John F. Kennedy Library gave him a Profile in Courage Award for “putting country above party and political prospects” when he raised taxes. Bush accepted and thanked the library “for remembering what our team tried to do, lo, those many years ago.”

He wouldn’t say it, but it seemed he no longer thought he’d made a mistake – even if it had become an article of faith within his party that he had.

And now there is this:

Former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., said the late President George H. W. Bush was able to come to terms with his decision to raise taxes, even though it cost him a second term in the White House, by saying he was always about helping the country.

“Recall the Andrews air base conclave, where congressional participants drafted a remarkable bill that dealt with two-year budgeting, entitlement reform, comprehensive and catastrophic healthcare, Social Security solvency, and much more,” Simpson said at Bush’s funeral at the National Cathedral Wednesday…

Recognizing that he had made a promise on the campaign trail in 1988 that he would never raise taxes, Bush said that he would agree to raising taxes if it meant Congress could pass the bill.

“And then they all said, ‘Yes, but we can get it done, and it will be bipartisan.’ And George said, ‘Okay, go for it, but it will be a real punch in the gut,'” Simpson said.

“He often said, ‘When the really tough choices come, it’s the country, not me. It’s not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s for our country that I fought for,'” Simpson said.

That’s odd. He gave up his second term to save the country. Donald Trump will ruin the economy, but he won’t be here when it finally collapses. That won’t be his problem. So things have changed. The presidency changed. The country changed. And the nation had a fine funeral for what had died – America’s funeral.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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