For about three hours on Wednesday, official Washington felt like it had “before.” Before the Russians tried to steal the 2016 election. Before every budget deadline came wrapped in a shutdown threat. Before FBI agents were made out to be the bad guys, and convicted felons were labeled heroes.
Everywhere during the Bush funeral, there were visceral reminders of what Washington used to be like. And not just in the days before President Donald Trump trampled sacred political norms — also before the Great Recession, and before Twitter and the tea party and the 9/11 attacks.
For a few hours, party loyalties seemed to melt away. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hugged Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, W.Va. Outgoing Republican Sen. Jeff Flake brought his sons up to the front of the chapel to meet former President Barack Obama, a Democrat with whom Flake regularly butted heads during Obama’s time in office.
President George W. Bush walked over and gave former first lady Michelle Obama a cough drop, after she joked earlier this year about how often the two of them were seated together at official events and how the younger Bush was always generous with the cough drops in his pocket.
This warm sense of nostalgia flowed from the pews into the eulogies, where the late president was remembered by his son as a true optimist. “The horizons he saw were genuinely bright and hopeful,” said George W. Bush, before recalling how his father had taught him and his siblings “that one can serve with integrity and hold fast to the important values, like faith and family.”
The late president was also eulogized by his biographer, the historian Jon Meacham, who both praised his courage in combat and noted some of Bush’s flaws — his insatiable ambition, for example.
This shouldn’t have seemed strange, for a biographer to eulogize a president. But in an era when the most popular books about the president are embarrassing tell-alls whose releases are marked by threats of lawsuits by the president’s own dedicated story-quashing attorney, Meacham’s presence was noteworthy and almost quaint.
Even the humor, much of which was delivered during a tribute by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., seemed to belong to a bygone era. Simpson told self-deprecating jokes about his years in Washington, quipping that he had gone from the “social A-list to the Z-list.” He also recalled how Bush, his lifelong friend, loved to tell jokes, but “he could never, never remember a punchline. I mean never.”
“He was a man of such great humility,” Simpson said, before joking, “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
To be sure, Washington has never been a hotbed of humility. Still, it’s not difficult to make the case that pride is having a major moment in U.S. politics right now.
And not just in the United States. Trump’s “America First” agenda and populist platform has been a catalyst and an example for nationalist and conservative populist movements around the world, from Italy and Hungary to Brazil and the Philippines.
But one place nationalism most certainly didn’t appear was at the Bush funeral, where former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney recalled Bush’s greatest foreign policy achievements. They were all, to the letter, born of multinational cooperation and underpinned by universal ideals. First the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union, then the first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, then the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“When George Bush was president of the United States of America, every single head of government in the world knew they were dealing with a true gentleman, a genuine leader — one who was distinguished, resolute and brave,” Mulroney said.
Again, it was difficult to hear Mulroney praise the virtues of multinational coalitions without being reminded of Trump’s oft-stated distrust of international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union.
All of this went unsaid during the service, of course, as the Bush family projected warmth and openness on one side of the center aisle. On the other, Trump sat stony-faced at the end of a row filled with former presidents and first ladies, nearly all of whom he has personally insulted.
Leave it to Simpson, however, to put two of the values Bush exemplified into the context of today’s politics. “Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in,” he said at the funeral and again shortly afterward, on CNBC. “And humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life.”
“They ought to learn this around this joint,” Simpson told CNBC.
“Life is really not all chaos and 24/7 news. It’s called silence and meditation and reflection and, for God’s sake, it’s clarity. It’s not about complexity and confusion. You’ve got to sort out the crap. It’d be a good thing for them to start doing.”