One US president talked softly, the other harangues. One built international coalitions, the other tears them up. One was a war hero, the other avoided battle. One was called George H. W. Bush and the other, Donald Trump, is in the White House today.
Trump was among the first of present and past world leaders to praise the life of the 41st president, who died Friday in Houston at 94. But even Trump’s gracious overnight statement highlighted an undeniable and uncomfortable contrast between the man being remembered and the man doing the eulogizing. “Hope”, “humble”, “quiet”, “unflappable”, “inspired”. Words like these dotted the five paragraphs sent from Buenos Aires, where Trump was attending the G20 summit.
They sounded foreign in Washington’s current, brutal political landscape, more so in the White House. Bush, who married his teenaged sweetheart, certainly lived a life far removed from the scandals that have dogged Trump, who notably stands accused of paying off a porn star to keep a lid on their secret tryst. Bush was soft-spoken, steeped in etiquette and diplomatic niceties.
Trump is a zero-sum competitor, a self-described dealmaker whose transactions, from his New York real estate beginnings to the China trade war, depend on brinksmanship and often well-timed insults. Where Bush, an experienced diplomat, was famous for putting together the enormous Desert Storm alliance to push Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991, Trump openly scorns multilateralism.
Even the 45th president himself would never claim to share Bush’s old-school manners, perhaps epitomized by the hand-written note that Bush left his election vanquisher Bill Clinton on inauguration day in 1993, wishing him “great happiness”. So, Bush’s passing immediately left some in Washington in a wistful mood.
“Today boasting and insults are viewed as strong leadership while humility and dignity are viewed as weakness,” tweeted Senator Marco Rubio, a man who felt the full force of Trump’s competitive instincts when they clashed in the presidential campaigns.
‘Kinder, gentler’ Bush’s
Bush’s biographical details alone stand in stark opposition to those of Trump.
He was a decorated US Navy pilot in World War II, narrowly escaping death at just 20. He not only worked up through the ranks of elected office, but served as CIA director, UN ambassador and vice-president, making him supremely qualified by the time he won the highest office, where he would help to ensure a peaceful end to the Cold War. Trump certainly has a colourful past in the cutthroat Manhattan business world.
His insurgent 2016 election, requiring him to overcome both the Republican establishment and then his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, stunned friend and foe alike. But where Bush rushed to join up for war, the young Trump secured no less than five deferments to avoid being drafted to his generation’s big conflict, Vietnam. Where Bush proved his lifelong dedication to US traditions and political institutions, Trump came in with a self-declared mission to turn them upside down.
And where Bush famously called for a “kinder and gentler nation,” Trump revels in his image as a tough talker. “Horseface”, “weak”, crooked”, “slimeball”, “loser”, are just some of the insults he has thrown out, as president, against those crossing his path. The top Senate Democrat, Chuck Schumer, whom Trump loves to label “Crying Chuck Schumer”, said Bush’s ability to talk to opponents was what he really misses. “His yearning for a kinder and gentler nation seems more needed now than when he first called for it,” Schumer said.