(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT)
The (Brief) Return of Civility
Memorial services for former President George H.W. Bush highlighted the differences – and similarities – between Washington then and now.
(ALEX BRANDON/POOL/GETTY IMAGES)
THE POLITICAL NEMESES sat in dignified, if chilly, silence at President George H.W. Bush’s funeral, as if the memorial of a man who called for a “kindler and gentler nation” reminded them, for one day, how to behave. President Donald Trump might have looked uneasy being a spectator, instead of the center of attention, at an event dedicated to honor a predecessor – and from a family that has been at sharp odds with him. But he was there in the front row, uncharacteristically mum, dutifully shaking hands with former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. There was no confrontation between Trump and grieving Jeb Bush, whom Trump openly mocked on the campaign trail as “low energy.”
Unlike the funeral for Sen. John McCain, the Bush memorial did not include such obvious criticisms of Trump and his presidency. To the extent the event was an implicit chiding of Trump, you had to look for it: Former Sen. Alan Simpson, for example, lauded the late Bush’s graciousness and loyalty – noting that loyalty for Bush meant standing by his friends. That was a subtle reminder that Trump’s professed idea of loyalty appears rooted in whether his aides and employees are protective of him. Historian Jon Meacham noted the late Bush’s “thousand points of light” celebration of American volunteerism – a program Trump ridiculed at a Montana campaign rally this summer.
It might have been an impetus to all the Washington politicians and power players at the event to dial back the anger and get down to doing the nation’s business. It wasn’t.
Judicial nominations scheduled for consideration Thursday were delayed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after departing Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he was standing by his threat to hold up such nominations until McConnell allows a vote on legislation to protect the job of special counsel Robert Mueller. The specter of a government shutdown because of a standoff over Trump’s desired border wall loomed – delayed only because of the Bush funeral.
“We think of [Bush] in this kind of weepy, sentimental way … but certainly people who worked for him could pull out all the stops and the long knives.”
The Senate is also pushing back angrily at Trump over the involvement of the Saudi crown prince, a Trump ally, in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A bipartisan Senate team has accused Trump of willfully ignoring evidence of Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the murder, and the chamber is moving on resolutions to condemn MBS, as he is known, and to curtail U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen.
House Democrats began gearing up for what is expected to be an aggressive investigation of Trump and his administration when the party takes control of the chamber in January. And the entire political city is shifting to presidential campaign mode, with several senators openly mulling runs.
“The death of a senior politician often becomes a time to mourn what we no longer have. We either remember the person with a nostalgia about how things used to be or use a shared appreciation of their service to call on our leaders to act in better ways,” says Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University. “But it never happens. Today the forces that generate intense partisan polarization are very strong. They are embedded in our institutions and culture – much stronger than the memory of a great figure can overcome.”
And while Bush’s death has been cast as the death, too, of a more conciliatory and cooperative Washington, the seeds of modern discontent had been planted in that era, experts say.
For example, Bush famously backed a tax increase to raise necessary revenue, despite having declared, in Clint Eastwood-esque verbiage, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” That episode damaged Bush politically – likely contributing to his re-election loss in 1992 – and spooked fellow politicians afterward.
“The Bush tax increase paved the way for the surpluses we had” during the Clinton years, says Stan Collender, a former Capitol Hill budget analyst and founder of the “The Budget Guy” blog. “But more importantly, it set up the anti-tax-increase politics we have now. Short-term, [Bush] did a very good thing in terms of budgeting and leadership. Long-term, it probably had the opposite effect of what he had been hoping.”
Bush also presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. On its face, that was a great thing for America and the world, historians say – but it also deprived the nation of a unifying issue amid domestic disputes.
And the hand-wringing over negative campaigning and nasty personal attacks? Not only did that not start with Trump and his tweets and derisive nicknames, but Bush had his own role in that kind of politics, experts note.
Bush famously attacked his 1988 Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, for a prison weekend-furlough program, one which allowed convicted murderer Willie Horton to commit a kidnapping and rape during what was supposed to be a temporary break from custody. Since Horton is black, the ad was viewed at the time as an appeal to white voters’ fears of African-American criminals.
A PAC supporting Bush ran the original Willie Horton ad, and the Bush campaign itself followed with another, called “Revolving Door,” which did not mention Horton by name but clearly echoed the first, devastating ad.
Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater, dying of cancer, apologized for the racially tinged campaign and his pledge to “make Willie Horton [Dukakis’s] running mate.” But the successful impact of the ads was clear – and the tactic endured.
When Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, he was friendly with Roger Porter, who had worked for President Ronald Reagan when George H.W. Bush was vice president and then went on to work in the Bush White House, says Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.
Porter, Perry says, called Clinton in 1991 and peppered him with questions about whether he would challenge Bush in 1992. Clinton hedged, and “Porter said, ‘Cut the crap – if you do [run], we will pull out all the stops against you,'” Perry says.
“We think of [Bush] in this kind of weepy, sentimental way” now that he’s died, Perry says, “and maybe that was the core of George H.W. Bush. But certainly people who worked for him could pull out all the stops and the long knives. From the playing field of Andover to the South Pacific to the presidential campaign, [Bush] is the most competitive person. You don’t become president of the United States without an edge,” she adds.
Former Rep. John Dingell, the longest-serving House member in history, laments where that trend has led.
“In my six decades in public service, I’ve seen many changes in our nation and its institutions,” Dingell writes in a new book, “The Dean: The Best Seat in the House.”
“Yet the most profound change I’ve witnessed is also the saddest. It is the complete collapse in respect for virtually every institution of government and an unprecedented cynicism about the nobility of public service itself,” Dingell writes. One of the forewords, notably, was authored by the late President Bush.