The outpouring of affection and gratitude for George Herbert Walker Bush raises two fascinating questions about our media and political culture.
Is the praise for the 41st president driven in part by attempts to disparage the 45th?
And how is it that a decent man so widely celebrated in the wake of his death was often depicted as a weak and passive president?
History, of course, is sometimes kinder to former presidents as we gain a critical distance on their record and they step out of the punch-and-counterpunch arena. Bush's universally acknowledged qualities of graciousness, civility and restraint seemed unremarkable, even boring, during his time in the Oval Office. But in the current age of hyperpartisan politics, they foster a sense of longing and nostalgia for a quieter and more unified time. That is especially evident in the lifelong friendships he forged with Bill Clinton, who defeated him in 1992, and Barack Obama, who visited him during his final days.
It's obviously true that Donald Trump has a far more pugilistic style than Bush, often denouncing the opposition party and the mainstream media while making himself the focus of the coverage. But the polarization that defines our politics intensified long before Trump, from the Clinton impeachment to the 2000 recount involving Bush's son to the battles over the Iraq War and ObamaCare.
And yet many in the media are constantly drawing the contrast, summed up by yesterday's Washington Post headline: "'Honorable, gracious and decent': In Death, Bush Becomes a Yardstick for President Trump."
On and on it goes: Bush was a force for international unity, Trump was isolated at the G-20. Bush was a World War II hero, Trump got a Vietnam draft deferment. And much the same thing happened after John McCain's death.
In other words, many in the media are using praise of a late president they now like to disparage one they have never liked. And this is despite the fact that Trump praised Bush upon his passing and declared Wednesday a national day of mourning. The president will also attend the funeral, as Bush intended, despite the fact that 41 did not like Trump (who repeatedly attacked Jeb and George W.) and let it be known he voted for Hillary Clinton.
As for the stark contrast between Bush's coverage now and in the 1980s and 1990s, it goes deeper than the healing of old wounds or a desire not to speak ill of the dead.
Many journalists had a hard time believing that the "kinder, gentler" Bush could move up from VP to POTUS in 1988, as exemplified by Newsweek's infamous cover, "Fighting the Wimp Factor." He did not have Ronald Reagan's speechifying skills or his feel for retail politics.
More important, most pundits were appalled by Bush's flags-and-furloughs campaign against Michael Dukakis, particularly the racially charged ads involving murderer Willie Horton, to the point where some questioned whether his victory rendered his presidency illegitimate. He was also widely panned for his selection of Dan Quayle.
Bush drew well-deserved criticism for not acting more aggressively against AIDS. But he compromised with Democrats on numerous issues, including a civil rights act for people with disabilities and a major clean air law.
When Bush broke his read-my-lips pledge and agreed to raise taxes, the media consensus was that he had committed a cardinal sin and was weakened within his party. The second part was true — Pat Buchanan challenged him in 1992 — but Bush drew little credit for risking his career to address what he viewed as the threat of rising deficits.
Still, after presiding over the demise of the Berlin Wall and winning the Gulf War, Bush was at 91 percent in the polls and most journalists thought he was a lock for reelection. But the combination of Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, a lingering recession and the sense that Bush lacked much of a domestic agenda denied him a second term. "Message: I care," he told a rally that year.
What's more, the Republicans had been in power for 12 years, allowing time-for-a-change sentiment to mushroom.
The election outcome led the media to brand Bush a loser, rather than as a principled leader who had at times taken risky steps to do what he thought was right.
Brit Hume told me on "Media Buzz" that President Bush was "exceedingly friendly" to White House reporters. And Maureen Dowd, who was tough on Poppy, disclosed their decades-long correspondence in a remarkable New York Times column.
The former president would say such things as "I like you. Please don't tell anyone," or scratch out "love" in favor of "not quite there yet."
"'Put it this way,' he wrote me once. 'I reserve the right to whine, to not read, to use profanity, but if you ever get really hurt or if you ever get really down and need a shoulder to cry on or just need a friend — give me a call. I'll be there for you. I'll not let you down. Now, go on out and knock my knickers off. When you do, I might just cancel my subscription.'"
Bush was warm to Maureen even though she kept knocking his knickers off. That is a remnant of a bygone era, of course, but typical of the man we now remember so warmly.