Americans bid farewell now to former President George H.W. Bush, who took us through the Gulf War and brought dignity to the end of the Cold War, each a moment in history that transcended political party or persuasion.
One day, the current occupant of the White House might give us a moment that brings the country together instead of dividing it.
But don’t hold your breath.
If there’s one thing that has stood out in the current round of tributes to Bush, who died over the weekend, at age 94, it’s the contrast between him and President Donald Trump.
Partly it’s character. Bush was a model of civility and self-effacement. Trump’s all bullying and bluster.
But it’s also the journey each took to get to the White House. The day after his 18th birthday, Bush signed up for service in World War II. He was the U.S. Navy’s youngest fighter pilot.
Trump’s bone spurs kept him in civvies during the Vietnam War era, but he ticked off a lot of veterans when he said his biggest physical worry during that era was avoiding STDs.
But look at the rest of Bush’s pre-presidential record versus Trump’s. Bush served a couple of terms in the U.S. Congress. He was ambassador to China, and head of the CIA. He was Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Did anyone ever become president who was better prepared for the job?
Trump prepared for it by growing the millions left to him by his family – even (or especially) when it involved cheating other people out of their money, whether it was students who enrolled at the phony Trump University or workers who never received their full pay after laboring on Trump real estate projects. Oh, and there was that TV show of his.
Great preparation to lead the free world.
The sad political truth about George H.W. Bush is that he’d have no place in today’s Republican Party. He’d be considered a liberal – a phrase Bush himself disdained when he ran for office.
He was, in most ways, a political moderate. He tried to hold the line on taxes, as any conservative does, but he also knew government played a vital role in American life. He was a protector of the environment, and of people with disabilities.
And he knew how to do the job. When America geared up for the Gulf War, we didn’t go in alone. Bush put together a grand coalition of nations, and their overwhelming might ended the war in miraculous time.
Then, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War finally seemed to breathe its last, Bush had the good sense not to gloat, not to dance on Mikhail Gorbachev’s political grave.
He was too much a man of civility for that, too much a grownup – one more attribute that separates him from the current man in the White House.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.