Washington – The nation’s most exclusive fraternity — the presidents club — assembled Wednesday to mourn George H.W. Bush, putting on public display its uneasy relationship with the current occupant of the Oval Office. The uncomfortable reunion brought President Donald Trump together in the same pew with past White House residents who have given him decidedly critical reviews.
The late Bush was the de facto chair of the modern incarnation of the president’s club, transcending contentious campaigns and party lines to bring together fractious personalities who share that rarified experience. But the staid group of Oval Office occupants has been disturbed since Donald Trump’s election. And since his swearing-in, Trump has spurned most contact with his predecessors — and they have snubbed him in return.
The Bushes had made it known to the White House months ago that, despite differences in policy and temperament, the late president wanted Trump to attend the national service. The ceremony’s tributes at times stood as an unspoken counterpoint to Trump’s leadership, as historian Jon Meacham eulogized Bush by recounting his life’s credo: “Tell the truth, don’t blame people, be strong, do your best, try hard, forgive, stay the course.” George W. Bush added of his father: “He could tease and needle, but not out of malice.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s state funeral for the late president, former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and their spouses chatted easily among themselves from their seats in the front row at Washington’s National Cathedral. The ex-presidents leaned over their wives to chat with one another. Bill Clinton and former first lady Michelle Obama shared a quiet conversation.
But the Trumps’ arrival, minutes ahead of the motorcade carrying Bush’s casket, cast a pall on the conversation. First lady Melania Trump approached first, greeting both Obamas and former President Clinton with a handshake. Hillary Clinton appeared to nod at Mrs. Trump but did not interact with Trump himself and stared straight ahead during the service. Jimmy Carter waved a hand. The president then shook hands with both Obamas before taking his seat.
After that, the small talk along the row largely stopped.
Next followed George W. Bush, who, by contrast, shook hands with the entire row of dignitaries — and appeared to share a moment of humor with Michelle Obama, slipping something into her hand. Bush took his seat across the aisle from the ex-presidents, with the rest of the Bush family.
The Trump-Obama handshake marked the first direct interaction between the current president and his immediate predecessor since Inauguration Day 2017. Trump has not spoken to Democrats Clinton or Obama since that day.
He did speak with the younger Bush during the contentious confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as the previous Republican president helped lobby for his former aide. Democrat Carter has been briefed by White House officials on North Korea, though it was not clear if he has engaged directly with Trump.
Trump has sought to meet the elder Bush’s passing with grace, a contrast to the rhythms of much of his tumultuous presidency. He came to office after a campaign in which he harshly criticized his Democratic predecessors and co-opted a Republican Party once dominated by the Bush family. Despite the traditional kinship among presidents, Trump’s predecessors have all made their discomfort known in different ways.