Who we are in death reflects who we were in life. You maybe remember the dreadfully cynical quip in an episode of Mad Men, right after Don Draper’s secretary unexpectedly dies at her desk, “she died the way she lived — answering other peoples’ phones.” Jimmy Carter announced today that he was going home to die in hospice care, prompting us once again to examine life, death, and how we deal with all of it.
We are getting ready for the passing of yet another American president, dwindling the Presidents Club down to a mere four, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and last and absolutely least, Donald Trump, when Jimmy Carter breathes his last. The death of George H.W. Bush immediately prompted the query whether Trump would even be invited to the funeral. Trump was deliberately excluded from the funerals of Barbara Bush and John McCain, which were state occasions in and of themselves.
Apparently the rest of the Presidents’ Club opted for unity (and perhaps they appealed to Trump behind the scenes to conduct himself properly. We will never know.) Trump was invited to George H.W. Bush’s funeral and he didn’t set fire to the pew nor soil himself, so the event was considered a success.
Now Jimmy Carter will be the next former president, at age 98, to shuffle off this mortal coil. It is unthinkable that Carter would want Trump not to attend, because Carter was always first and foremost, a unifier. Carter is the last person to throw another grenade in the culture war.
But I’m sure Carter has thought about Trump and I’m sure that George H.W. Bush did as well. All three of these men share one thing in common: they were one term presidents. They were elected and after four years, the country said uh uh, and then they were replaced.
Neither Carter nor H.W. behaved like children when they were defeated. Yes, their hearts were broken on a level that it is difficult for anyone who has not been in that position to conceive. But they picked the ball back up, as a United States president does and handed it on to the next player and wished him well. Donald Trump is constitutionally incapable of doing this. That is his flaw, the fact that he can never admit wrong nor defeat. Trump is like a character in a Greek tragedy, his fate is pre-determined by the flaws in his personal makeup.
In the modern age, we watched all three presidents go down to defeat. In the late 70’s America was introduced to gas rationing, for the first time in many decades. Americans were in shock. Then the fall of the Shah of Iran upended the geopolitical scene and the Iranian hostage crisis exacerbated situations, both domestic and foreign, which were already bad. The Republicans had a strong leader in 1980 in Ronald Reagan and so it went.
In George H.W. Bush’s case, a lot of what befell him was simple Reagan fatigue, Republican fatigue. America was locked in the Reagan/Bush grip for 12 years and when Bush reneged on his “read my lips” tax promise and floundered with foreign policy in the Iraq war, he was ripe to be taken down. Bush’s situation was different from Carter’s, insofar as Bush was part of a machine which had been grinding on for twelve long years at the time of his defeat, but his situation is similar, insofar as what did him in were events which were outside himself and which he could not get a grasp on in time to save his presidency.
Donald Trump, by contrast to both Bush and Carter, was taken out of the game essentially by his own disastrous decision making. Trump’s deus ex machina was the global pandemic, which he found out the existence of in October, 2019 and deliberately chose to do nothing about, but did allow Fox News to claim that COVID-19 was a hoax, and part of a personal vendetta against him. That was the posture the Fox propaganda arm maintained until mid-March, 2020 when the truth could no longer be swept under the rug and all hell broke loose.
The night that George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, he gave the most gracious concession speech that I personally have ever heard or read. Bush was lauded for the speech and his “Patrician” ways. Bush also started the tradition of the outgoing president leaving a note in the Resolute Desk for the incoming president.
Likewise, Carter was gracious. The first words out of his mouth were how much losing the election hurt him. But then he went on to do what presidents do on these occasions, which is unify the country.
PORTION OF Concession Speech, November 4, 1980
I promised you 4 years ago that I would never lie to you. So, I can’t stand here tonight and say it doesn’t hurt.
The people of the United States have made their choice, and, of course, I accept that decision but, I have to admit, not with the same enthusiasm that I accepted the decision 4 years ago. I have a deep appreciation of the system, however, that lets people make the free choice about who will lead them for the next 4 years.
About an hour ago I called Governor Reagan in California, and I told him that I congratulated him for a fine victory. I look forward to working closely with him during the next few weeks. We’ll have a very fine transition period. I told him I wanted the best one in history. And I then sent him this telegram, and I’ll read it to you. “It’s now apparent that the American people have chosen you as the next President. I congratulate you and pledge to you our fullest support and cooperation in bringing about an orderly transition of government in the weeks ahead. My best wishes are with you and your family as you undertake the responsibilities that lie before you.” And I signed it Jimmy Carter.
The speech goes on for a few more minutes from there, but you’ve seen enough to know that Carter also displayed his Patrician side, and well and nobly passed the torch.
These are the presidents that have passed before Donald Trump. Trump met Bush and Carter. And there is no question in my mind but that Trump could have learned from Bush and Carter if he was teachable. He is not.
Trump failed America spectacularly. He failed in every way that a president can. He lied, he abused his trust, he cheated, investigations are ongoing about how he may have raided the public coffers and sought to undermine the bedrock of our nation, free and fair elections.
Trump is technically a former president, just like H.W. Bush and Carter; like Dubya and Clinton and Obama. He was elected by the same process and afforded the same privileges. But that’s where all similarity ends.
Trump simply doesn’t have the same human decency as either George H.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter. They were big enough men to rise above personal adversity and despair and do what was right for the country. Trump is not forged from the same metal and he lacks the same mettle. He is dross to their gold, if that.