George H.W. Bush once vomited on the prime minister of Japan. It was a mortifying but innocent incident, the result of a nasty stomach bug. Donald Trump has spent the past couple of days effectively doing likewise on France’s Emmanuel Macron.
What’s Trump’s excuse?
The contrast between the 41st and 45th presidents comes to mind this week as millions of Americans mourn the passing of Barbara Bush and pray for the health of her bereaved husband. It’s a study in American decline.
Bush did his duty in World War II as the Navy’s youngest pilot and was shot down over the Pacific. Trump shirked his duty in Vietnam, and we already know he doesn’t like guys who were shot down.
Bush zipped through Yale in 2 1 / 2years and was elected Phi Beta Kappa. Trump is “like, really smart.”
Bush married his teenage sweetheart at 20 and stayed married to her for 73 years. Trump stayed married to his first wife for 13 years, his second for five, and his current one (if you can call it a marriage) for 13, with all the assorted lecheries and abuses during and in between.
Bush voted for the Fair Housing Act of 1968 as a Republican congressman. Trump and his father were charged with violating it in 1973.
Bush was the only Republican congressman to see off Lyndon Johnson as the 36th president departed Washington in January 1969, a humane gesture for a broken man from the opposing party. Trump couldn’t bring himself to invite a single congressional Democrat to his state dinner with Macron.
Bush presided adroitly over a high-water mark of U.S. power and influence, a remarkable four-year stretch that included the collapse of the Soviet Union, the creation of NAFTA, lightning victory in the Gulf War and the rescue of the Kurds. Trump is all that in reverse: the looming collapse of NAFTA, the resurgence of Russia, an incoherent policy in the Middle East and prospective abandonment of the Kurds.
Bush believes in the virtues of bipartisanship in substance. Trump believes in it only for show. Bush husbanded and enhanced U.S. credibility on the world stage. Trump squanders it. Bush is a respecter of civic institutions. Trump is a destroyer of them.
“Bushes were to win, but not brag; succeed, but not preen,” Jon Meacham writes in his recent biography of the 41st president. Trump brags and preens through successes and failures alike. Bush had a capacity to laugh at himself. Trump does not. Bush had some money, and a lot of class. Trump has lots of money and no class.
Bush is profoundly decent. Trump is profoundly not.
These contrasts don’t mean that Bush was without blemish: As Meacham notes, there were political misjudgments and calculated concessions to ambition on the long path to power. Nor does it mean that Trump doesn’t lack his own kind of strengths, not the least of which is his loudly declared indifference to elite opinion.
Yet the fact that personal virtue does not always guarantee political success – or that private vice may often facilitate public achievement – does not mean countries can afford to remain indifferent to questions of virtue and vice. That’s what some of Bill Clinton’s liberal defenders argued during the impeachment debates in the 1990s, and what Trump’s defenders believe today.
They’re wrong. In an age of radical transparency, who the president is inevitably spills over into how he’s seen. Jack Kennedy might have been all class in public and a complete cad in private, but he lived in an era when he could get away with it.
Not anymore. Today’s presidents will be judged on their behavior, which is why the Trump brand is proving so damaging to Republicans’ midterm prospects, despite the strength of the economy. Today’s presidents also model behavior, and tell every presidential aspirant what will or won’t work for them politically.
The Bush model was about proving one’s worth and paying one’s dues. The Trump model is about the vain boast and the savage put-down. It’s either Hadrian or Caligula: Whose regime would you rather live under?
The intense interest in Barbara Bush’s funeral, as well as the concern for George Bush’s health, no doubt reflects the ordinary human sympathy for a couple that has been such an enduring part of our common political landscape. But it reflects something else, too: They – that – was what we once were, too, at least at our striving best. In the age of Trump it’s a reason for mourning and nostalgia, along with a prayer for resurrection.