The Memo: Grief, tension mark Bush memorial service

A son’s grief for his father was the emotional core of former President George H.W. Bush’s memorial service in Washington on Wednesday — but the polarized politics of the moment never vanished from view.

Even as former President George W. Bush gave a moving, affectionate and often humorous eulogy for his father, much of the political world’s attention was focused on just one pew, where President TrumpDonald John TrumpTed Cruz knocks New York Times for 'stunning' correction on Kavanaugh report US service member killed in Afghanistan Pro-Trump website edited British reality star's picture to show him wearing Trump hat MORE and first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico Melania Trump to attend reopening of Washington Monument Former speechwriter says Michelle Obama came up with 'when they go low we go high' line MORE were seated somewhat awkwardly next to the other living ex-presidents and their spouses.


Trump, arriving last, shook hands briefly with former President Obama and Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaTrump: House Judiciary should investigate Obama Netflix deal instead of his business 2020 is not a family affair, for a change Former speechwriter says Michelle Obama came up with 'when they go low we go high' line MORE, who just last month published a best-selling memoir in which she wrote that she would never forgive Trump for putting her husband and children’s safety at risk by questioning his birthplace.

Trump did not shake hands with Bill and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump's economic approval takes hit in battleground states: poll This is how Democrats will ensure Trump's re-election The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico MORE, who attended Trump’s 2005 wedding to Melania, or with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, nor did he appear to acknowledge them as all eight sat in the tight National Cathedral pew.

Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 presidential election opponent, nodded a greeting toward Melania Trump but otherwise stared straight ahead.

That was not the only moment of awkwardness or incongruity.

Trump, unlike his predecessors, did not recite the Apostles’ Creed toward the end of the service and appeared not to join in the singing of hymns.

Generally, the current president appeared ill at ease, sitting rigid and with arms folded even during some of the ceremony’s most moving moments.

Still, his presence itself made the Bush memorial different from the last high-profile service to bring the Washington political elite together — a favorable difference from the White House's perspective.

When Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Biden's debate performance renews questions of health At debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR MORE (R-Ariz.) was memorialized on Sept. 1, also at the National Cathedral, Trump was not invited. Speakers on that occasion, including former President Obama, seemed to throw rhetorical jabs at Trump, albeit without mentioning him by name.

The Bush family has its own bad blood for Trump coursing through its veins — most conspicuously in the case of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

Trump beat Bush badly. He humiliated him while doing so, deriding him as “low-energy” and making fun of his inability to draw crowds.

During the same campaign, Trump criticized the younger President Bush for having taken the nation to war in Iraq in 2003. And, as recently as this summer, Trump mocked the elder Bush for one of his signature phrases — “a thousand points of light,” a reference to volunteerism — while campaigning in advance of the midterm elections.

“What the hell was that, by the way?” Trump asked at a rally in Montana in July.

During his eulogy for his father on Wednesday, George W. Bush invoked the phrase once again.

“To us, his was the brightest of a thousand points of light,” he said.

By then, of course, there had been at least a detente in the Bush-Trump hostilities.

Multiple outlets have reported that the Bush family reached out to the White House in recent months, when it was clear their patriarch was ailing, to make clear that Trump would be welcome at the ceremonies to mark his death — and that those ceremonies would not be intended as a platform for criticism.

Still, contrasts with Trump were impossible to ignore as tributes were paid to the humility and sense of decorum of Bush, who died Friday at the age of 94.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), now 87, got one of the biggest laughs of the service when he noted that “those that travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”

Trump, who would not be described as humble even by his most fervent supporters, seemed to find the line less amusing than the other eminences alongside him.

Brian Mulroney, the former prime minister of Canada, recounted Bush’s achievements diplomatically, praising his work to prepare the ground for the North American Free Trade Agreement for example, then adding that it had been “recently modernized and improved.”

Mulroney also noted that other international leaders who met the 41st president “knew that they were dealing with a gentleman, a genuine leader, one who was distinguished, resolute and brave.”

In June, aboard Air Force One after a Group of Seven meeting in Quebec, Trump disparaged the current Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, as “very dishonest & weak” on Twitter.

The memorial service for Bush was a coming together of the Washington establishment that Trump professes to disdain. If his body language appeared uneasy or defensive at times, it was not hard to understand why. Even at a memorial service, he was in hostile territory.

Trump had paid tribute to Bush after his death with none of the begrudging reflex that marked his responses to McCain’s passing. Bush had “always found a way to set the bar higher,” according to a statement released in the names of the president and first lady.

Trump, who had not been invited to speak at Wednesday’s ceremony, said nothing publicly afterward. Even the famous Trump twitter account was stilled, for a while.

Soon, it will be back to business as usual along the partisan battle lines.

The evening before Bush’s memorial service, new legal filings from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerFox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal MORE cast more light on the cooperation he had been offered by Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The stock markets, closed Wednesday as part of a national day of mourning, will reopen Thursday.

Their most recent day of trading saw about three percent wiped off the Dow Jones Industrial Average after Trump indicated that he would be willing to impose new tariffs as part of his trade war with China.

As Washington said goodbye to one president on Wednesday, the pitched battles around the incumbent eased.

It was a respite — and a brief one.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.