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Trump should heed a 1974 warning penned by Bush

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On Jan. 20, 1969, a throng of Democratic well-wishers gathered at Andrews Air Force Base in Virginia to bid farewell to one of their own, Lyndon Johnson, who several hours before had handed the presidency over to his Republican successor, Richard Nixon. Among them was a lone Republican congressman. “Well, he’s my president and he’s leaving town,” explained George H.W. Bush, the newly re-elected representative from Texas’ 7th District when asked by an LBJ aide why he was there and not at Nixon’s inaugural parade. “And I didn’t want him to leave this town without my being out here and paying my respects to him.” It was a gesture that Johnson would never forget.

On the same day, 24 years later, Bush, then an outgoing president himself, would leave a now-famous handwritten note for his Democratic successor, Bill Clinton, who had beaten him out of a second term in the election of 1992. “You will be our president when you read this note,” Bush wrote. “I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

{mosads}Our president. It was, as Clinton told me recently, “vintage George Bush,” reflecting, as with his gesture to LBJ, Bush’s instinct to put country over party and his reverence for the institution of the presidency.

It was no great surprise, then, that Bush allowed for the invitation of President Donald Trump to his funeral service at the National Cathedral this past week. This, despite the fact that he considered Trump, as he told me two-and-a-half years ago, “a blowhard.” “I don’t like him,” he offered five months before Trump unexpectedly won the presidency in 2016, “and I’m not excited about him being a [political] leader.” Bush cast his vote for Hillary Clinton but, like it or not, Trump became our president. Of course, Bush would make sure he was invited to his funeral — albeit not given the chance to eulogize him as he almost certainly would have any of the other incumbent presidents who succeeded him.

To his credit, Trump reciprocated with equal grace. In an uncharacteristic moment of restraint and decorum, the president accorded every courtesy to the late president and the family he left behind, availing Air Force One to transport Bush’s body and family to and from Washington, issuing a statement of tribute and condolence, and calling on the family at Blair House, where they stayed the night before the funeral. He attended the service. And while he artfully avoided greeting Bill and Hillary Clinton and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, who sat on the far side of the church’s presidential front pew, he shook the hands of Barack and Michelle Obama and sat attentively through the service as the spotlight blanketed the 41st president, not the 45th, whose name was never mentioned.

Still, Bush left behind a warning. He didn’t sound it in recent years, or even when he was president. Rather, it came in the summer of 1974 during the Watergate era, when Bush was serving thanklessly as the chairman of the Republican National Committee while the Watergate scandal unraveled ominously from Nixon White House, ultimately implicating and bringing down Nixon himself. Two weeks before Nixon’s August resignation, Bush wrote a letter to his four sons, seizing the opportunity to extend a lesson about power, which George W. said later “set a standard” for him and his brother, Jeb, as they set about their own political careers.

“In judging your president, give him credit for enormous achievements, but understand, too, that power accompanied by arrogance is very dangerous,” the elder Bush wrote. He continued, but not about Nixon: “It is particularly dangerous when men with no real experience have [power] — for they can damage our great institutions.”

President Trump should be given due credit for rising to the occasion upon the death of his predecessor. It was all the more impressive, given Bush’s earlier comments about Trump, which were met by hail fire at the time in a White House statement that blasted Bush as a “lifelong politician beholden to special interests.” Trump’s behavior this week was an encouraging sign that he’s capable of doing the right thing when the situation calls for it.

But we should all heed George H.W. Bush’s prudent and prescient warning from long ago. Trump came to the presidency with no political or military experience, and his arrogant approach to power since taking office has shaken our institutions, putting them at risk along with America’s flagging reputation abroad as he has consistently put his own political interests above those of our deeply divided country. The president would serve us all by exercising the discipline and moderation we saw in the past six days, and by reigning in the hubris that has blighted his presidency.

He is, after all, our president and we ultimately want him to succeed. His success, to borrow from Bush’s letter to Clinton, is our country’s success.

Mark K. Updegrove is a presidential historian and the author of “The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.”

Tags Bill Clinton Donald Trump Donald Trump George H. W. Bush Hillary Clinton Michelle Obama U.S. presidency Watergate

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