More than 500 million people have been citizens or slaves of the United States of America since the country’s inception, but just 39 of them, all men, from 36 families, have been elected president. It’s only 35 families if you factor in Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. They were fifth cousins.
Never before have six of those elected presidents been alive at the same time, but since noon on Jan. 20, 2017, this has been the case. Given the ex-presidents’ ages—two of them are in their 90s—and a 71-year-old incumbent who declines to exercise and hardly sleeps, this may not occur again for another 30 or 40 years, if it ever does.
Junk food, congestive heart failure, high-pitched noises emanating from Havana, assassination, pneumonia, testicular cancer, bicycle accidents, thermonuclear war—any or all of these may thin the ranks.
On a thundery Saturday night, in the basketball arena on the campus of Texas A&M University in the prairie town of College Station, five of those six men take the stage together, one of them pushing his own Dad’s wheelchair and gently lifting his hand to cover his heart during the singing of the national anthem. The evening is a rollicking and passionate celebration of resilience, volunteerism and charity in the wake of titanic natural disasters.
Policies, lies, election campaigns, executive orders, treaties, vetoes, scandals, war crimes—these are momentarily forgotten. The crowd is so ecumenical and enthusiastic that George W. Bush draws an ovation from students and parents and teachers and donors equally as loud as the screams and shouts that they accord to Barack Obama, and where else has that ever happened? A&M students famously do not boo—they hiss—but on this night they never do.
College Station, which is about 90 miles inland from Houston, got wet and wind-whipped but not disastrously waterlogged when Hurricane Harvey roared up the Gulf Coast in August. But the college’s emotional proximity to the cataclysm is genuine, and as the video screens replay scenes of Biblical inundation and heart-tugging heroism—125 trillion litres of rain fell on South Texas and 72,000 people had to be rescued—some in the audience cry.
“Sometimes, life gives us a million reasons to give up,” says a woman who has come to play the piano and sing. “But we stick around.”
“What a beautiful country,” Lady Gaga continues, sitting at an ivory Steinway, in that roof-raising voice of hers. “What a beautiful country that we have.”
Four of the five ex-presidents appeal to the crowd for donations, (George H. W. Bush, 93, is present but does not speak.) Barack Obama, who would not wear an American flag pin in his lapel as a candidate in 2008, hails “the spirit of America at its best.” Jimmy Carter enumerates the nation’s giving spirit: 67 million volunteers performing eight billion hours of selfless labour every year.
Bill Clinton declares that the country’s response to the storms in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands revealed “the heart of America without regard for race, religion or political party.”
“We’ve got more love than water,” says the younger Bush. Yet the eyes of Texas, and everywhere else in the world—are upon the President who isn’t here.
No one at a rostrum or a microphone dares mention him. Not Gaga, not the five ex-presidents, not the other performers—“Soul Man” Sam Moore, the Gatlin Brothers, Lee Greenwood, et alia. Many of them, like Bush, Bush, Clinton, Carter and Obama themselves, are yesterday’s figures making yesterday’s music.
It has been a raucous week as the five ex-Presidents assemble at College Station. Barack Obama, campaigning for Democratic candidates in New Jersey, has publicly slammed Donald Trump, without dirtying himself to name him, snarling that “we’ve got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry, to demonize people who have different ideas, to get the base all riled up because it provides a short-term tactical advantage.”
George W. Bush, previously occupied since leaving the White House with painting portraits of the wounded veterans of the wars he started, has snapped to a forum in New York City, also without naming his Republican successor, that “bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”
The day before the benefit concert in late October, Barbara Bush, the wife and mother of presidents rolls into a conference room at her husband’s museum and library on the A&M grounds. Mrs. Bush is 92, but she is impeccably dressed and when a university professor from Virginia goes up to her and thanks her for her decades of service to the nation, Barbara Bush replies, “Ahh, baloney.”
The seminar is being held to discuss the tenure of the man whom the current president calls, affably enough, “Original Bush.” (Actually, the foundational politician in the family was Prescott Bush, Original’s father, who served as a U.S. Senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1963.) Original Bush’s four years in the Oval Office encompassed only the First Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But the topic, of course, as always, everywhere, is Trump.
Viewed in the context of 2017, every corner of the Bush Library at Texas A&M seems to warn of a coming whirlwind: the campaign poster of 1988 that heralds then-Vice-President Bush as “A president we won’t have to train”; the family Bible with a hymn from 1906 that vows “I will be true, for there are those who trust me”; the statement from Bush when Richard Nixon resigned that said “we need at this juncture in our history a certain sense of morality and a certain sense of dignity.”
“The progression from George H. W. Bush to the incumbent disproves Darwin,” snaps the historian and pundit Jon Meacham when the panel discussion begins.
“The incumbent wants very much to be seen as an Andrew Jackson figure,” continues Meacham, whose biography of the rough-hewn seventh President won the Pulitzer Prize. “There’s the hair, and that’s about it.”
Meacham says that he received a call from George H. W. Bush in March, when new-President Trump was planning a pilgrimage to Jackson’s Hermitage in Tennessee. That week, Meacham wrote an open letter to Trump, listing Major-General Jackson’s long record of military and political service and adding, rather deliciously, that “it’s too late, obviously, for you to undertake such preparation.”
“Forty-one calls and says ‘I read your letter to Jackson,’” Meacham says now. “OK, the old guy’s 92. I said, ‘It was to Trump about Jackson.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but Jackson will pay more attention.’”
Another of the speakers at the afternoon session is Barbara Perry, professor of ethics and director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia.
“I revere the White House and the Oval Office,” she says backstage. “The presidency is my civil religion. It is sacred to me, and Donald Trump is sacrilegious.”
“To me, the last straw was the disrespect for the war dead,” Perry goes on. “He is a dangerous demagogue, and that is exactly what the Founding Fathers wanted to prevent when they established the Electoral College, to take the election of the president out of the hands of ordinary people who could be swayed by demagoguery.
“The Sarah Palins and the Herman Cains have been marginalized, but given what Trump said during the campaign about John McCain not being a hero, I said, ‘This is different.’ By virtue of his personality and his lack of experience, this changes forever the rules of the game.”
Perry is not alone in her disdain for the sixth of the living six. Also speaking at the seminar is Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, which happens to be the location of the library and museum of Bush the Younger.
“I think the next election will be absolutely critical,” Engel says in an interview. “If the next election results in either Trump himself or a Trump-like figure winning, someone with no regard for ethical norms, values or political standards—Trump negates traditional policies merely because they are traditional policies—then I think the presidency will be permanently broken and so too will our democracy.
“If the nation rejects Trump,” says Jeffrey Engel, “then the system can right itself. But it has to do it in the next election. If he’s defeated, then I think the world gives us a mulligan.”
“People have asked me what it’s like to run a presidential history center in the age of Trump. My response is that it is truly awful. The country may be done with him in three years, but I have to live the rest of my life with Donald Trump.”
“I think the media have been harder on Trump than any other president certainly that I’ve known about,” retorts Jimmy Carter to The New York Times on the weekend of the concert, swimming against the scornful tide. “I think they feel free to claim that Trump is mentally deranged and everything else without hesitation.”
If Andrew Jackson was known as Old Hickory for his resiliency and toughness, posterity may remember Donald Trump as Old Bone Spur. Yet he too was elected under the prevailing rules and held the highest office, and someday he too will lie in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol and his face will be engraved on postage stamps and impressed on golden coins.
In the basketball arena on the campus of Texas A&M University, a video greeting by Trump is introduced from the stage by Lee Greenwood. (“The sitting president is NEVER included at events of this kind for several reasons, including the overwhelming security demands and the fact that any sitting president brings the politics of their administration into the equation,” a spokesman for the Original Bush library says, explaining Trump’s absence. “None of the five has been seen within 50 miles of Trump since Inauguration Day, when Clinton and the younger Bush —and Obama, of course—attended his swearing-in.”
Trump’s Jumbotronic image is greeted with only restrained acclaim but there is no audible hissing.
The president’s cameo is a bizarre two-camera performance during which he alternately is shown staring and blaring toward some unseen prompter or cue card out of frame or from the side, while uttering a few harmless, un-Trump-like banalities such as “the American people have done what we do best—we came together” and “we all united by our values and our devotion to one another.” It is all over in two minutes.
In the front row of the grandstand at what would be midcourt if this were an Aggie home game, a retired radiologist named Ron Rust takes in the show. It was voters such as this native Texan who made Trump the president, and may well do it again. But these people rarely are invited to speak at academic seminars.
“Has Donald Trump broken the presidency?” Rust is asked.
“Broken it?” he yelps. “He has made it. He has recovered the presidency for the American people.”
Rust, a doctor, says that he was very disappointed to hear George W. Bush defame a member, however maverick, of his own party, and he reasons that “I think the Bush family just has sour grapes for Trump because he beat Jeb.”
“I’ve got 41 and 43 memorabilia all over the house,” he continues. “But I don’t wear it now.”
Barack Obama, Rust says, “is the worst president I have ever seen in my life or read about. Donald Trump has made the presidency into what it should be.”
“He bothers Lady Gaga,” Rust is told. (The morning after Trump’s electoral victory, Gaga posed on a garbage truck outside Trump Tower with a sign that said LOVE TRUMPS HATE. It has only gotten more bitter from there.)
“Well, Lady Gaga bothers me,” the radiologist retorts. On stage, five living presidents of a nation that loves itself only in tragedy are embracing volunteers.
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