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How We See George W. Bush in the Time of Trump

At George H.W. Bush’s funeral, we were reminded of a more civil but no less complex or destructive time in American politics. And Bush the younger was in the center of it all.

A photo illustration of George W. Bush with Donald Trump in profile in the background Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday, George W. Bush delivered his second eulogy in three months. The first was for Arizona Senator John McCain, whom Bush had defeated for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, and the second was for his own father, former president George H.W. Bush.

The two services were broadcast live from the National Cathedral. The surviving Bush family, including George, Laura, and Jeb, sat along the front pew, backed by a row of other presidential families — the Carters, the Clintons, the Obamas, the Trumps. Such presidential reunions are reliably fraught these days, given Trump’s hostility toward every living presidential predecessor (save, at least recently, for Carter). Two years ago, George W. Bush described Trump’s inaugural address as “some weird shit.” On Wednesday, mourners turned once again to George W. Bush for consolation.

The younger Bush’s presidency ended rather unhappily. After the financial crash and Barack Obama’s election, Bush quickly withdrew into an exile occasionally marked by his own quirks. He painted and mostly avoided politics. In 2014, Bush told Sean Hannity how desperate he’d been to escape public scrutiny, even if doing so meant withholding public comment on the Obama administration and, well, everything else. He’d occasionally reemerge to hawk a memoir, or to lead some self-consciously bipartisan charity efforts with his predecessor, Bill Clinton. But otherwise Bush, it seems, rightly suspected that the political classes might take a kinder view of him in obscurity. So he made himself scarce. He’d appear with his aging, ailing father in family photos, distributed to the press to commemorate a relationship that, the two men would insist, had always been widely misunderstood.

Still, political culture briefly threatened to mount a much harsher reconsideration of the Bush administration. Trump criticized the junior Bush rather brazenly in the Republican primaries two years ago, and he even mocked the senior Bush as recently as July. In the same month, Sacha Baron Cohen disguised himself as an out-of-control Israeli colonel to interview Dick Cheney about the Iraq War and other Bush-era misadventures. There’s a new movie, Vice, that will employ similar mockery when it premieres nationwide three weeks from now. But more than anything else, McCain’s death, followed so quickly by George H.W. Bush’s, has forced George W. Bush back into the national discourse on sympathetic terms.

In these bleak occasions, Bush is mercifully funny and soft. At McCain’s funeral, Bush and Michelle Obama made headlines when cameras caught the former Republican president passing the former first lady a cough drop — a humble gesture that seemed to affirm, however quietly, the good sportsmanship that Trump contradicts so very loudly on any given day. On Wednesday, Bush presented a brave face and spoke lovingly about his dad. He reaffirmed the late president’s posthumous stature as a national patriarch who must represent some righteous and uncontested truth about the United States. Meghan McCain argued as much on Monday in a shouting match with her View cohost Joy Behar, who’d begun to sketch an environmental policy contrast between the elder Bush and Trump. “I don’t want to talk about Trump when … we’re honoring a great president,” McCain said. She was talking about real mourning, but also about national mourning — the phenomenon by which a prominent figurehead passes from politics into mythology. Strangely, it happens with the living, too.

The memorial service for George H.W. Bush was a far less contentious spectacle than McCain’s ceremony, which was hotly defined by the McCain family’s decision to not invite Trump and to denounce the president from the pulpit. The Bush family invited Trump to attend their memorial service as a silent, humbled onlooker. George W. Bush spared Trump. For old time’s sake, he embodied the “compassionate conservatism” of his old stump speeches, a term wrecked, irreparably, by the wide-ranging and violent disasters of his presidency, not to mention the spiteful extremism that has won control of modern Republican politics. Ironically, Bush now symbolizes the happy alternative to the dark forces he and his team engendered.

Still, the myth isn’t settled. On Christmas, Vice will hit theaters, reanimating Cheney, Bush, 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq as satire—not to mention the right-wing politics that defined the 2000s but then culminated in the following decade, somehow more alarmingly, with Trump. The Bush years were instructive. Cheney switched every television in his life to Fox News, and George W. Bush preached a know-nothing conservatism that held journalists, scientists, and humanitarians in contempt. It’s astoundingly easy to forget how Bush launched not one but two disastrous wars for unclear, unreal, and unwise reasons. The first war has yet to end. It’s impolite to grouse about the politics right now. A couple of decades later, it will be impossible.