WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Former President George H.W. Bush's passing Friday at the age of 94 marks the end of a long life in public service as well as the formal passing of an epoch in American political life.
President Bush oversaw tectonic shifts in the modern political landscape. He was the last president of the "the Greatest Generation," and the last president to serve in combat as a young naval aviator in the Pacific in World War II. He was tasked with reviving the credibility of the American intelligence community as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1976 and presided over the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union during his single term as president.
"In many ways, George H.W. Bush's passing means the end of an era," said Mark Updegrove, a presidential historian who documented both Bush presidents 41 and 43 in his book, "The Last Republicans."
He is emblematic of a style of republicanism that has gone out of fashion," Updegrove told Sinclair Broadcast Group. "This is somebody who campaigned with the hope that we would see a 'kinder, gentler nation.' He was what his son might have called a 'compassionate conservative.' And we certainly don't see a great deal of kindness, gentleness and compassion in the Republican Party today."
Trump, who first became a public servant at age 70, has long been skeptical of Bush's genteel approach. "I disagree with him when he talks of a kinder, gentler America. I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it's literally going to cease to exist," Trump said of the 41st president in a 1990 interview with Playboy Magazine. He argued, much like today, that the United States was being taken advantage of in trade and foreign policy and it would take a businessman to earn the respect of other nations.
Over the weekend, President Donald Trump issued a kind statement on the passing of the 41st president. "President Bush led a great American life, one that combined and personified two of our Nation’s greatest virtues: an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to public service," Trump wrote in an official statement. "It is with great sadness that we mark the passing of one of America’s greatest points of light."
It was a departure from his recent attack of Bush and his Points of Light Foundation, a charity dedicated to promoting the spirit of volunteerism. It is also a far cry from Trump's criticism of Bush's two sons, former President George W. Bush and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush on the 2016 campaign trail.
Trump's latest comments were a "welcome moment of restraint," Updegrove noted. "I think even he realized that disparaging a late, former president who devoted the bulk of his life to public service would have been tantamount to touching a third rail. Even for Donald Trump, it might have been a bridge too far."
Trump sent Air Force One to retrieve Bush's coffin from Houston and bring it to the U.S. Capitol where he will lie in state. He called for a national day of mourning Wednesday and ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff throughout the month of December.
Between Bush Sr. and Trump, the antipathy was mutual. "I don't like him. I don't know much about him, but I know he's a blowhard. And I'm not too excited about him being a leader," Bush said in a 2016 interview with Mark Updegrove.
However, Bush made clear that he wanted President Trump to attend his funeral at the Washington National Cathedral. Trump was not invited to Sen. John McCain's funeral in August over bitter personal and political differences. The president did not attend Barbara Bush's funeral in April; first lady Melania Trump represented the White House.
It made sense that Bush would honor the office of the presidency by inviting the sitting president to attend his funeral, Updegrove explained. "Despite his feelings toward Donald Trump, he would certainly extend an invitation to the memorial. It was about the office, not the individual."
Bush's election in 1988 marked the last time a presidential candidate earned more than 400 votes in the electoral college and the last time the GOP candidate won California, New Jersey or the popular vote in a presidential election. Republican candidates have not been able to earn that kind of plurality of votes since.
Bush was also in office at a time when the two parties were less consumed with the need for ideological purity and voters more often complained there was no difference between candidates on the left and the right.
In a 1984 interview with CBS, Bush "I am a conservative, but I’m not a nut about it." In office, he enacted stricter environmental standards under the Clean Air Act and openly supported Planned Parenthood and famously compromised with the Democratic-controlled Congress in 1990, enacting a tax hike that violated his pledge that there would be "no new taxes" under his administration.
With both parties moving further to the extremes, there is less willingness to compromise, Updegrove noted. "George Bush didn't see politics as a zero-sum game. He saw it as a game where everybody can win in some way," he said.
Both in style and substance, Trump has transformed the party of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush into one of his own making. The current GOP, that supports Trump by with a roughly 90 percent approval rating, is vastly different from the traditional orthodoxy of the Republican Party in recent decades.
Before hearing of Bush's death Friday evening, Trump was signing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) fulfilling his promise to replace NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement President Bush negotiated three decades ago.
Rather than the United States forging consensus on an international agenda at this weekend's G20 Summit in Argentina, Trump was an outlier. In the final communique, the United States was alone in opposing a joint statement on climate change and the president's "America First" tariff policies and approach to migration were top concerns for international leaders. During his presidency, Trump has dealt skeptically with institutions the United States created during Bush's lifetime, such as the United Nations, NATO or the World Trade Organization.
Through George Bush and beyond, presidencies were largely defined in relation to these post-World War II institutions and the domestic policies and party coalitions developed around Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, explained Frank DiStefano, author of the soon-to-be-released book, "The Next Realignment: Why America's Parties Are Crumbling and What Happens Next." All of that began coming to an end with the 1989 through 1993 presidency of George H.W. Bush. By the mid-1990s, that 70-year-old political debate was becoming less relevant to the American public, he noted, yet politicians continued to have it.
"Part of the reason there is such nostalgia for Bush and Reagan is that both were the last presidents at a time when the ideology of the party matched our identity as a country," he said. "It's the end of an era because he is the last president you could look to and see somebody who was trying to address the things everybody cared about."
In that respect, the first Bush presidency began the political party realignment that led to Trump's victory in 2016, defeating a packed field of tradition GOP candidates. "Ideologically, the Republican Party hasn't changed. But from the bottom up, it's been changing a lot," DiStefano continued. "Trump recognized this disconnect and kind of surfed on top of it."
As Americans move beyond the issues that dominated the Bush presidency and defined his time in public office, a historical era in politics has inevitably come to a close. Though some leaders hope that does not mean the qualities Bush represented in public and private life are relegated to the past.
In a Washington Post editorial piece reflecting on the passing of Bush, former President Bill Clinton resisted the urge to place Bush in an era in American politics that has come and gone.
"Given what politics looks like in America and around the world today, it’s easy to sigh and say George H.W. Bush belonged to an era that is gone and never coming back — where our opponents are not our enemies, where we are open to different ideas and changing our minds, where facts matter and where our devotion to our children’s future leads to honest compromise and shared progress," the former president wrote.
Clinton continued, "I know what he would say: 'Nonsense. It’s your duty to get that America back.'"
Bush put it optimistically in his 1989 inaugural address, "The old ideas are new again because they're not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in."
George H.W. Bush will lie in state through Wednesday morning. After the memorial at the National Cathedral, a separate funeral service will take place Thursday morning in Houston. Bush will be buried in a family plot at the George H.W. Bush Library in College Station, Texas next to his wife Barbara and their daughter Robin.