It’s not unusual for a president to be asked to steer clear of his fellow party members’ campaigns. If his approval ratings are low and their races are tight, pragmatism trumps politesse.
But it’s beyond strange for a president to be asked to stay away from a fellow party member’s funeral, and it’s positively surreal for the request to be rendered in advance of the person’s death. That’s precisely what has happened with Donald Trump and John McCain.
In a recent account of McCain’s struggle with brain cancer and dying wishes, my New York Times colleague Jonathan Martin reported that Trump administration officials had been informed that the president wasn’t wanted at a planned memorial for the 81-year-old Arizona senator at the National Cathedral in Washington, just a few miles from the White House. Other news organizations added that Trump’s two immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, were expected not only to attend the ceremony but to give eulogies.
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Never mind that Obama is a Democrat who took some nasty shots in the course of vanquishing McCain in the 2008 president election, or that Bush beat McCain in an acrimonious battle for the Republican presidential nomination eight years earlier. They are welcome. Trump is not.
Petty? There has been some pushback along those lines, from observers who claim that McCain is contradicting his valedictory pleas for civility in speeches and in a book, “The Restless Wave,” to be published this month. But I think that he amply covers the high ground by reaching out to Obama and Bush.
No, this one’s on Trump, who practices such gratuitous cruelty – he once mocked McCain’s agonizing years as a prisoner of war – and leaves nothing but scorched earth behind him. McCain is saying that there’s no point in letting bygones be bygones with someone as far gone as Trump, and he’s taking a stand that too many of his Republican colleagues won’t. It’s hard to quibble with him.
We have a president so proudly offensive that his last respects are spoiled goods. Is there any better illustration of what ugly, unprecedented terrain we’re crossing?
He wasn’t wanted last month at the funeral of Barbara Bush, the former first lady, either, as the White House’s own statement at the time hinted.
Four former presidents were in attendance: her husband and her son, obviously, along with Obama and Bill Clinton. They were joined by Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump in that stirring photograph, which went viral only partly because their easy smiles suggested a comity and dignity still possible in this hyperpartisan era. It also captured the country’s attention because of who was conspicuously missing – who wouldn’t have fit and didn’t belong. Comity, dignity and Trump cannot exist in the same frame.
Skipping that funeral wasn’t remarkable in the abstract. When Obama was president, he took a pass on both Betty Ford’s and Nancy Reagan’s; Michelle went in his stead. When George W. Bush was president, he didn’t attend Lady Bird Johnson’s – Laura did.
But Barbara Bush was a legendary figure in Trump’s own party. And neither President Obama nor President Bush would have had to worry about the foul memories and ill will stirred up by his presence.
Trump is a whole new, supersized kind of pariah: president non grata. He has made that many enemies, indulged in that much tactlessness and worked that diligently to consign apology and atonement to the dustbin of leadership.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are to be married in a week and a half, and decided not to invite major political figures, but imagine if they had wanted to. Obama would have been a logical inclusion, given that he and Harry have partnered in philanthropic work.
But Trump would have been unthinkable. In a past life, he repeatedly entertained questions from Howard Stern about whether he would have slept with Harry’s mother, Princess Diana. Yes, he said, although he once qualified that answer by saying that he would have insisted first that she take an HIV test. It’s the gentlemanly thing.
Other presidents had their feuds. Other presidents rose above them. George H.W. Bush eventually became close friends with Bill Clinton, whose 1992 victory denied him a second term. Obama campaigned passionately against George W. Bush’s foreign debacle and fiscal recklessness, but there’s no vestige of that in the body language between Bush and Michelle Obama whenever they meet. It communicates a fondness that transcends politics. And it’s possible because each can see in the other many moments of generosity and genuine warmth.
In that image from Barbara Bush’s funeral, George W. is sandwiched between two other former first ladies – his wife, Laura, and Hillary Clinton – with an arm draped gently around each. Michelle and Melania are side by side, as if joined in a common mission. They are. It’s called decency.