Trump could've ruined Bush's funeral. Bush didn't let him

OPINION: Like the semi-mythical Christmas truce between the British and the Germans on the front lines during World War I, Wednesday's (local time) state funeral for former President George HW Bush showed two Washingtons and two Republican parties - in one sense, two Americas - taking a momentary step back from the bonfire that is now US national politics. The day, unlike almost anything involving US President Donald Trump, was subdued and respectful.

For that, we can thank the late former president, no fan of Trump. By insisting on his successor's inclusion in the proceedings, Bush forced the current White House occupant to abandon briefly his unfrozen cave-man act, denying him the chance to debase further the office of president by siphoning the dignity out of 41's final hours in DC - 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.

Former President George W Bush knew exactly what he was doing by opting not to exclude Trump from his funeral; he controlled the uncontrollable.
ALEX BRANDON/AP
Former President George W Bush knew exactly what he was doing by opting not to exclude Trump from his funeral; he controlled the uncontrollable.

A few months later, Trump was relegated to golfing and tweeting, miles away, after being asked to stay away from Republican Senator John McCain'sfuneral  (read: given the finger). During the funeral, 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 eulogised by former Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama.

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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 President George W Bush's record, Trump's swipes at former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, 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 tweet abrasively about the Bush legacy, employing Trump's patented Twitter formula: insulting nickname, distracting punctuation, malapropism, logical fallacy, self-own, hit send.

The current and former US presidents attend the state funeral state funeral for  George HW Bush.
ALEX BRANDON/AP
The current and former US presidents attend the state funeral state funeral for George HW Bush.

But in his final wishes, the late former president put the dignity of the office and, by extension, the nation's dignity, above all. He knew the passing of a president is a rare occasion and, even in passing, any chance to demonstrate honour 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.

The US flag-draped casket of former President George HW Bush is carried by a military honour guard.
CAROLYN KASTER/AP
The US flag-draped casket of former President George HW Bush is carried by a military honour guard.

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 honour 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: Bush 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 was laid to rest, Bush reminded 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, honour and devotion to family are models of a life well lived, in and after politics. George HW 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.

Wilson is a Republican political consultant, a Daily Beast columnist and the author of Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever.

The Washington Post