Trump the outsider at funeral for Bush Senior

From left: US President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, Mr Barack Obama, Mrs Michelle Obama, Mr Bill Clinton, Mrs Hillary Clinton, Mr Jimmy Carter, Mrs Rosalynn Carter at the funeral service for former president George H. W. Bush on Wednesday
From left: US President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, Mr Barack Obama, Mrs Michelle Obama, Mr Bill Clinton, Mrs Hillary Clinton, Mr Jimmy Carter, Mrs Rosalynn Carter at the funeral service for former president George H. W. Bush on Wednesday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Awkward moments as he and his wife share pew with the presidential predecessors and spouses he often derided

WASHINGTON • From the moment he crossed the transept of the soaring Washington National Cathedral, tore off his overcoat and took his seat in the front pew, President Donald Trump was an outsider.

When the others sang an opening hymn, his mouth did not move. When the others read the Apostles' Creed, he stood stoically. And when one eulogist after another testified to former president George H. W. Bush's integrity and character and honesty and bravery and compassion, Mr Trump sat and listened, often with his lips pursed and his arms crossed defiantly over his chest.

Wednesday's state funeral was carefully planned to be about only one man and his milestones - Mr Bush the father, the friend, the war hero and the lifelong public servant.

But inevitably it became about Mr Trump, too, for it was impossible to pay tribute to the 41st president of the US without drawing implicit contrasts with the 45th.

"His life code was: 'Tell the truth. Don't blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course'," Mr Bush's biographer Jon Meacham said in his eulogy. "And that was, and is, the most American of creeds."

The mourners did not deliver the searing rebukes of Mr Trump that the nation witnessed in September for the funeral of Senator John McCain. But despite being crafted to honour Mr Bush's legacy, their words nevertheless also served to underscore the singular nature of Mr Trump's presidency.

Mr Trump was in the company of all of his living predecessors for the first time on Wednesday, and the encounter was plainly uncomfortable.

When Mr Trump and his wife Melania stepped into the cathedral, a cool hush had come over the pews filled by American dignitaries and foreign leaders, past and present.

Former US president George H. W. Bush's casket being carried out after his funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington on Wednesday. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Trump took his seat on the aisle next to Melania, with three past presidents and first ladies seated to her side. First was the president Mr Trump said was illegitimate (Mr Barack Obama); then the first lady he called a profligate spender of taxpayer dollars (Mrs Michelle Obama); then the president he called the worst abuser of women (Mr Bill Clinton); then the first lady and secretary of state he said should be in jail (Mrs Hillary Clinton); and then the president he said was the second-worst behind Mr Obama (Mr Jimmy Carter) and his wife, Rosalynn.

The Trumps and the Obamas greeted each other brusquely, but only Mrs Trump reached over to shake hands with Mr Clinton. Mrs Clinton did not acknowledge the Trumps, keeping her gaze straight ahead as if determined not to make eye contact with the man who continues, two years after the 2016 election, to inspire "Lock her up!" chants at his rallies.

The frostiness of Mr Trump's interactions with his predecessors was all the more apparent when former president George W. Bush entered the cathedral a few minutes later. Mr Bush shook hands cheerfully with each of the other presidents and first ladies. He slipped what appeared to be a candy to Mrs Obama - just as he did at Mr McCain's funeral.

As a military honour guard carried Mr Bush's casket to the front of the altar, the Trumps joined the Obamas and Clintons in holding their right hands over their hearts.


Mr Trump's Cabinet members and aides seemed to blend easily into the audience. It was the President who seemed most out of place. For about two hours, he sat in silence, the rare event at which the President was not the centre of attention but merely an observer.

One of the five eulogists, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, praised three of the late Mr Bush's achievements in office - negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Clean Air Act.

It was not lost on the audience that Mr Trump has slammed Nafta, mocked a journalist's physical disability, and rolled back scores of environmental regulations.

The most emotional eulogy came from Mr George W. Bush, who celebrated his father's character. "He showed me what it means to be a president who serves with integrity, leads with courage and acts with love in his heart for the citizens of our country," he said.

After the choir sang and bells rang, and after the casket was carried down the centre aisle, the Trumps departed the cathedral quickly through a side exit.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2018, with the headline 'Trump the outsider at funeral for Bush Senior'. Print Edition | Subscribe