The bacillus-like effect that Donald Trump has had on American political commentary is so pernicious that even the death of a former president, historically an event that transcends partisan bickering, no longer inoculates us from nastiness.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, that some editorial boards and columnists, in reflecting on the death of George H.W. Bush on Nov. 30, could not resist comparing the 41st president with Trump.
This was predictable given political punditry’s unprecedented disdain for the current president.
But predictable does not equate to necessary.
There’s no legitimate reason to lard these ostensible tributes to the elder President Bush with criticisms of Trump — criticisms that are so familiar by now, more than two years after Trump’s election, that most of us could write them ourselves, perhaps with the aid of a Mad Libs-style form allowing us to supply an occasional adjective.
In almost every example I read, the authors obviously felt justified in contrasting Bush and Trump because they felt this highlighted the former’s more admirable qualities.
Perhaps, in the echo chamber in which these writers seem to work, this seems self-evident.
But outside that cloistered environment — which of course is where most readers live — I believe the tactic fails, by and large, and for at least two related reasons.
First, it’s a mistake to assume that everyone, or even most people, loathe Trump.
(If that were the case his 2016 victory would be even more stunning than it was.)
It follows logically, then, that readers who either support Trump or who are ambivalent about him — categories that combined surely include tens of millions of Americans — might well deem these references to Trump, wedged into eulogies to Bush, as inappropriate distractions.
I’m decidedly in the ambivalent camp when it comes to Trump — I find his personality deplorable and many of his statements and tweets offensive, but some of his economic policies, such as his orthodox Republican approach to taxation and federal regulations, commendable.
Some of the editorials and columns I read struck me not as sincere efforts to laud Bush but rather as cynical, and transparently so, attempts to stir a new ingredient into the familiar anti-Trump recipe.
The impulse must have been all but irresistible.
Here was a chance to lionize Bush, and thus deflect the common complaint that the liberal media hate Republicans, but without losing any momentum in the campaign to demean Trump.
Yet it seems to me that any thoughtful reader — and notwithstanding the political climate I believe there are plenty of them around — understands that it’s quite possible to honor a former president without mentioning the current one.
Indeed, it’s preferable.
Even accounting for the widespread repugnance that media commentators have for Trump (and considering his statements about the media, this aversion is hardly irrational), these Bush-Trump comparisons seem to me the product of reaction rather than sober contemplation.
After all, if you’re writing from the perspective that Trump is a cretin, why would you choose him as the standard by which to measure Bush? What bar could be lower?
This hardly seems like a compliment to Bush.
The approaches among the writers varied from the subtle to the blatant.
As an example of the former, Newsday’s editorial praising Bush concluded with the sentence, “America could use a president like him today.”
But in my admittedly cursory assessment, this technique was less common than the more direct approach of, in effect, combining a memorial to Bush with a repudiation of Trump.
The Chicago Tribune, for instance, ended its editorial by writing that Bush’s “gravity, moderation, vast experience and serious purpose could hardly be less like the qualities for which Trump is known.”
Michael McGough, the senior editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, penned a column in which he uses the first four paragraphs to celebrate Bush and condemn Trump.
But McGough, to his credit, at least acknowledged that using Bush’s death to highlight Trump’s shortcomings weakens the apparent sincerity of any purported ode to a dead president.
But even so McGough, having invested a few hundred words in what amounts to a tirade against Trump, won’t concede that the technique, even though it smacks of a backhanded compliment, is inappropriate.
“Instructive as these comparisons are, it diminishes the contributions of Bush to regard him simply as an anti-Trump,” McGough writes.
He’s right, of course.
The best eulogies, it seems to me, are the simple ones, those that focus on the qualities the speaker, or writer, found most admirable about the deceased.
I believe each of us would prefer to be remembered this way, rather than to have someone else intrude on what’s supposed to be a celebration of our own life.
Too many writers, I think, have in effect turned Trump into a sort of party crasher, an unwelcome presence at a solemn gathering.
Contrasts between Bush and Trump are inevitable, of course — they’re both presidents.
But we have ample time to indulge in that sort of analysis.
Surely President Bush deserved a brief period in which he didn’t share headlines with Trump.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.