A Kinder, Gentler Nation? Maybe for a Few Days
Posted December 2, 2018 9:28 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — Just weeks after a bitterly fought election swept Democrats into power in Congress, a Republican president known for reaching across the aisle died. Leaders of both parties paid tribute to his civility and bipartisanship, saying the country could use more of that. And then within days of the burial, they went back to their partisan wars.
That was December 2006 and the president was Gerald Ford, but Washington seems almost certain to be repeating history now that George H.W. Bush has died. The political system has hit pause to honor a president of another era for being everything it no longer is.
The truce that essentially took effect over the weekend only underscores how much Washington and the nation have changed since Bush’s days. The kind of compromises that Bush cut with a Democratic Congress on deficits, taxes, civil rights and the environment during his four years in office seem almost impossible to imagine in the era of President Donald Trump and the “resistance.”
As part of the cease-fire, Trump and Congress appear poised to postpone the spending showdown that had threatened to close much of the government by the end of this week. But it will likely be an extension of at most two weeks, leaving the country still uncertain of whether its government will operate during the holidays. The spirit of comity fostered by the shared mourning of Bush will almost certainly dissipate within days, if not hours, of his funeral at Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday and his interment in Texas on Thursday.
Bush would almost certainly be disappointed but not surprised. A seasoned practitioner of politics, he was more partisan than many of the encomiums to him since his death Friday would suggest. While even Michael Dukakis, his Democratic opponent in 1988, has offered praise in recent days, he would hardly agree that gentility defined the Bush campaign that painted him as a criminal-coddling, unpatriotic lefty.
But those memories have faded with time, and history has settled on Bush’s essential dignity, commitment to public service and willingness to compromise in the interest of governance as his defining traits. The flaws natural to any politician — or any person — are overlooked, and the strengths are magnified.
On the Sunday shows that were such a force in his time, political figures of both parties shared stories that testified to the conclusion that Bush had adversaries but few if any enemies. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., remembered the family man — “how kind he was to children, bending down, looking in, listening to them,” as he put it on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “Everyone got a smile, everyone got a handshake, everyone got respect.”
Former Vice President Dan Quayle talked about how Bush collaborated with the opposition to get things done. “We had to work hard to get Democrats to support us,” he said on Fox News. “And sometimes divided government works. It clearly worked in our administration and you can get things done if you reach across the aisle and work hard.”
Dick Cheney, who served as Bush’s defense secretary before becoming vice president for President George W. Bush, revealed what happened after the elder Bush was quoted criticizing him. Speaking with his biographer, Jon Meacham, Bush complained that his son had been led astray by Cheney, whom he termed “iron ass.”
“After he’d done it,” Cheney said on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, “I got a note from him saying, ‘Dear Dick, I did it,’ and then he went on to say nice things about me. But that year when the Alfalfa dinner was held here in Washington, he arranged for me to sit right next to him at the head table. He wanted to make sure there was no perpetual aggravation there at all between 41 and myself.”
Today, it often seems, there are no apologies when political figures go to war. Trump does not believe in “kinder and gentler” politics, but governs through blunt force and Twitter barbs. His opponents are “weak & dishonest,” “wacky,” “crazy,” “goofy,” “mentally deranged,” “psycho,” “sleazy” and “corrupt” “losers.” His opponents do not think much of him either, calling him many of the same names and others like “fascist.”
How different it seems from the days when Bush shocked the political system by calling Bill Clinton a “bozo.” He later made up for it by virtually adopting Clinton as another son.
The nostalgia for a bygone era misses the fact that politics has never been truly genteel in the United States, where lawmakers once beat each other with canes on the floor of the Capitol. But it has been more restrained in its rivalries and more open to cooperation than it is now.
The raw and visceral nature of today’s politics, amplified by a fragmented and increasingly side-taking media and even more so by a free-for-all social media, feels so antithetical to Bush’s approach that it was inevitable to be a theme of the conversations once he died.
The mood feels much like it did 12 years ago, the last time a president died and Washington geared up for a state funeral. Like Bush, Ford was known as a gentleman and a moderate who worked with the opposition. Like Bush, Ford could not win another term. Decency and moderation may be inspiring themes for eulogies, but they are not always rewarded at the ballot box.
In 2006, Democrats had just swamped Republicans in midterm elections and were about to install Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California as their House speaker. The younger Bush was president and in the midst of a flailing war effort in Iraq. Leaders of both parties gathered at Washington National Cathedral to honor Ford in a pageantry of propriety. And then they went back to fighting over the Iraq War and other divisive issues.
Trump has been invited to Bush’s funeral, although it is not clear whether he will offer a eulogy. He has, perhaps surprisingly, spared the venom since Bush’s death and stuck to gracious admiration. He made a point of saying that he would send Air Force One to bring the former president back to Washington one last time.
The budget battle is likely to be suspended. Trump said on Air Force One over the weekend that he planned to terminate the “disaster” of the North American Free Trade Agreement — one of Bush’s biggest accomplishments — but he seems likely to wait until after the various services this week.
Then January will bring a new political balance on Capitol Hill as Democrats assume control in the House and Republicans return to power in the Senate. The president and his opponents seem almost certain to go to war over economics, security, health care and a plethora of investigations.
Bush by then will be buried at his presidential library in College Station, Texas. And maybe his style of politics will be, too.