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October 19, 2018

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Picture-perfect grace

Image

Paul Morse/Courtesy of Office of George H.W. Bush via AP

President George H.W. Bush, front center, and past presidents and first ladies, rear from left, Laura Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and current first lady Melania Trump appear in a group photo at the funeral service for former first lady Barbara Bush on Saturday, April 21, 2018, in Houston. Barbara Bush died Tuesday, April 17. She was 92.

Sometimes a picture is worth a zillion words. The viral group photograph from former first lady Barbara Bush’s funeral speaks volumes about the state of our democracy, poignantly illustrating what we have lost and must at all costs regain.

George H.W. Bush is front and center in his wheelchair. Behind him, left to right, we see Laura and George W. Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Melania Trump. It is an extraordinary portrait of power, continuity, legacy, civility and mutual respect — a remarkable tableau that is only made possible by President Donald Trump’s absence. Imagine him in the picture, puffed-up and no doubt scowling, trying desperately to make himself the center of attention. It’s a good thing he decided to spend the weekend playing golf and writing angry tweets at Mar-a-Lago instead.

I can’t look at that photograph without pondering how destructive Trump has been — and how much work and goodwill it will take to put the pieces together again after he’s gone.

The elder Bush pursued conservative policies. Clinton was center-left. The younger Bush took the country back to the right. Obama pulled it to the left. These shifts seemed big and important at the time, but they pale in comparison to the disruption Trump has wrought.

Like virtually all of their predecessors, the four presidents in that picture tried to govern with a generosity of spirit. I disagreed vehemently with many of George W. Bush’s policies, including the war in Iraq and the brutal torture of suspected terrorists. I was sharply critical of his administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina. Yet Kanye West was wrong when he said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” With no regard for political gain, Bush 43 launched a program to provide anti-HIV drugs to victims in southern Africa — an initiative estimated to have saved at least 11 million lives. I try to imagine Trump doing something like that, and I can’t.

I also can’t see Trump skillfully managing tectonic geopolitical change the way George H.W. Bush handled the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bush 41 knew it was important to lay the groundwork so Russia and its former satellites could prosper in the post-communist era. Trump’s foreign policy is based on “America first” selfishness and whether foreign leaders flatter him or not.

Clinton guided the nation through tremendous economic expansion, welfare reform and fiscal belt-tightening that ultimately resulted in a balanced budget. In doing so, he often angered his Democratic Party base. By contrast, Trump evidently cares about nothing but his base. Presented with reasonable compromises on issues such as immigration and health care, Trump preferred to leave problems unsolved rather than risk his loyal supporters’ anger.

Obama always sought compromise, though he did not always achieve it; he based the Affordable Care Act, after all, on Republican ideas that had first been implemented by Mitt Romney. Seeing Obama at a funeral was a reminder of his great eloquence, especially at moments of tragedy and loss. I was present when Obama delivered his indelible eulogy to the victims of the Charleston, S.C., church massacre. I saw the reaction when he broke into “Amazing Grace” and the auditorium erupted with shouts of “Amen!” I imagine Trump at that podium, and I weep.

Melania Trump was not out of place in that photograph; she looked elegant, as always, and paid her respects to Barbara Bush with grace. It is easy to see her as an eventual member of that exclusive club of former presidents and first ladies — as long as she leaves her husband at home to nurse his many grievances.

When Trump eventually leaves, we will have much to do — rebuild the State Department, put the Environmental Protection Agency back in the business of fighting climate change, shift tax policy to favor the middle class rather than the wealthy, cope with the trillion-dollar deficits that arise from irresponsible tax cuts, rebuild relationships with some of our closest allies ... the list is long. But perhaps the biggest task will be re-establishing the sense of national honor and tradition that the funeral photograph represents.

An argument can be made that the Democratic Party and the pre-Trump Republican Party were too close, that there were only modest differences between their policies, that both had lost touch with the nation they sought to govern. But if that was the problem, Donald Trump was a disastrous solution.

Imagine him standing there in the picture, between his wife and Michelle Obama. The image just falls apart.

Eugene Robinson is a columnist for The Washington Post.