One Photo and What It Says About the Presidency

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Last weekend there was published a photo taken at the funeral reception for Barbara Bush, the matriarch of the Bush family who died last Tuesday on April 17, 2018 at the age of 92, having been married to George WH Bush for 73 years. Americans from across the political spectrum (except for the far left) applauded Barbara Bush for her class and candor. She was lionized by historian Jon Meacham as “the first lady of the greatest generation” in the eulogy.

The photo from the reception held large symbolic value, and not only to me, because it shows the entire American presidency for the last 30 years. Many commentators said something like this: “I might not have agreed with all the policies of these presidents, and I might have disagreed with some of them almost all the time. But I respected that they were trying to do the best they could for the country they loved and served. These were all honorable men in a difficult job.” I read several such comments making this same point. And I agree.

The photo is notable in this sense because Donald Trump is not in it. President Trump claimed he would send his wife but miss the funeral himself so as “to avoid disruptions due to added security, and out of respect for the Bush Family and friends attending the service.” For whatever reason, Trump’s absence from the photo is instructive, as he does not belong with these ex-presidents, in my opinion. All the men in the picture (and Hillary Trump) are career politicians and worked within the “establishment.” Donald Trump, in contrast, is a real estate developer and reality TV entertainer who ran on the position that he was an “outsider” who would “drain the swamp” on Washington D.C. politics. Trump truly is different in a multitude of ways. Many Americans, like me, have difficulty calling Trump an “honorable man” in the way we speak of past presidents.

What we have found him to be is a rank novice when it comes to keeping his administration on message and using the political system to advance his message. When I think of being a responsible leader and making sound judgments on how to lead the nation with a coherent policy and through sound personal example, Donald Trump is entirely the opposite.

About once a week I think of these white working class voters from Pennsylvania or Wisconsin living in rural areas who said, “I thought it was time for a change. Trump seems like a straight shooter. Let’s give him a chance!” My blood boils at the naivete at their giving the presidency to such an inexperienced, bombastic political novice. Now look at the mess he is making!

For many years we Americans could go about the business of our lives not terribly concerned with who was President of the United States. To one degree or another, capable and responsible individuals occupied the Oval Office and operated under a system of laws and traditions. We could afford to not pay much attention. Those days are gone.

Trump has disrupted the American presidency. He has destabilized the American political system. The checks and balances — and eventually the voters — will resist his demagoguery. American democracy will survive the damage of Trump, but there will be a cost. “A strong man makes a weak people. Strong people don’t need a strong man.” The world has recently seen a rise in authoritarian strongmen like Orbán in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Maduro in Venezuela, Duterte in the Philippines, Xi in China, and Putin in Russia.

Trump is a symptom, rather than the cause, of these disturbing geopolitical trends.

I will do all I can, as a citizen, to bring back the political tradition in America of moderation and responsibility. My brother claims it is as simple as Trump has no manners. I tend to agree with him. All these other noxious actions stem from Trump’s bumptiousness. Will Trump be a brief, unpleasant speed-bump in American politics? Or the start of long-term instability?

In my opinion, this photo from last Saturday powerfully highlights exactly what we Americans stand to lose, and have lost, in electing Donald Trump. And I am not alone. 

Some might criticize the “orthodox” American politics which gave us presidents George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.* These men were far from perfect, both in their personal and public lives.

But they were much different men than Donald Trump. Far better men, in my opinion. Far better leaders.


* I voted for every one of these men (and woman, Hillary Clinton) from 1988 to 2016. In presidential elections I was 6 victories an 0 losses. The first time I voted for the presidential candidate who lost was Donald Trump in 2016. Now I am 6-1. That night, November 8th 2016, will remain one of the strangest, saddest, most surreal days of my life. I will never look at Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania the same.