The pomp and circumstance aspects of American life have always fascinated me. It is probably the main reason I volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army so many years ago, because I liked the concept of military precision and its application to daily life.
On Wednesday, with rapt attention, I watched the state funeral service of George H W Bush, America’s 41st president with all the trappings, military, civil and religious that accompany such an event as only America could do it.
But what was particularly interesting to me was watching the three former U.S. presidents and the current one sitting in the same pew accorded that office and ruminating on what they must have been thinking as they sat there watching the process.
At the far end of the pew was 94-year-old Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the U.S. and the oldest living former occupant of the White House along with his 91-year-old wife Rosalynn. What could he have been thinking watching the spectacle the played out in front of him? No doubt, he was giving some thought to “that could be me in that casket anytime now.” After all, no one lives forever; he has had his share of medical challenges including an ongoing battle with cancer and increasing frailty. My guess is he was also thinking, “Do I want this kind of funeral or would I opt for something simple with just family and friends in Plains, Georgia?” We will never know, of course, but the look on his face projected a thought process that was not fully in the moment.
To his right sat Bill Clinton, the 42nd president and his wife Hillary, who lost her bid to become the 45th president to the incumbent, Donald Trump. Bill Clinton, as you recall, ran against George H W Bush in 1992 and his victory made President Bush a one-term president. I remember when Bush lost that election.
In my opinion, it was during the first presidential debate in the 1992 campaign in St Louis on October 11th. Three people were on the stage; Bush, Clinton and Ross Perot (remember him?). One of the questioners in the audience was a young black woman who shared with the speakers that she had successfully emerged from the welfare rolls, had a productive but low paying job and had to face the fact that by the 25th of each month she was out of money for necessities. Standing behind the podium, Bush responded first and produced a series of patrician platitudes that clearly had no meaning for or value to the questioner. When Clinton’s turn came he stepped away from the podium, approached the questioner and in an empathetic voice asked, “So you are saying that at that point in the month you don’t have money to buy food for your kids? We need to find a solution.” At that point, he had the election in his pocket.
My guess is that Clinton was thinking not only about how he prevented George H W Bush from attaining a second term as president, but also about the sensitive and heartfelt note that was left for Clinton by Bush on the day of Clinton’s inauguration on January 20th 1993.
To the Clinton’s right sat Barack and Michelle Obama who, whether one agreed or disagreed with the U.S.’ domestic and foreign policies in place during their eight years in Washington, they always exuded class and élan. The way they carried themselves at the funeral was no exception. From their body language, it would appear that they relished this throwback to a kinder and gentler America than what has now become the norm. I would say they almost appeared wistful for what once was.
At the other end of the pew sat the current president, Donald Trump and his wife Melania. Melania, as always, was poised, controlled and very much in the tradition of those that had preceded her as first lady. The president, on the other hand, was clearly physically uncomfortable in the situation he found himself. He was often on the edge of his chair, and when he leaned back, his hands were folded across his chest, almost belligerently. One had the sense that this was the last place he wanted to be on this particular Wednesday morning, participating in a ritual of American politics with which he clearly does not identify, neither by his actions nor by his language.
In a way, looking at those four individuals and the casket in front of them, I had the feeling that I was witnessing a timeline of the history of the US presidency. Jimmy Carter, the Georgia peanut farmer who never really became part of the Washington establishment followed by the deceased, George H W Bush, born into a political family with a record of service to his country in the finest tradition of American history.
Then to Bill Clinton, a former Arkansas governor who, while not from the Washington elite figured out how to make himself part of Washington’s society followed by Barack Obama, the freshman junior senator from Illinois who brought calm and class to the White House with not a single instance of scandal during his eight years there. Finally, the current occupant of the White House whose performance and values are yet to be fully judged, but who never hesitates to demonstrate his disdain for tradition, often with inappropriate language..
At the end of the day the funeral with all of its trapping gave honor as much to the institution of the presidency as it did to the man being eulogized. As Harry Truman (perhaps America’s last truly honest president) once said, “When you get to be President, there are all those things, the honors, the twenty-one gun salutes, all those things. You have to remember it isn’t for you. It’s for the Presidency.” Indeed and may it always be so!