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The Nauseating Spectacle of George H.W. Bush’s Funeral

The flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried to its burial plot. (Smiley N. Pool/ The Dallas Morning News via AP)

You will often find mentioned, in history books recounting the grim march of the 20th century, the 1910 funeral of King Edward VII. A clownish panoply paraded through the streets of London: nine monarchs, a small army of minor royals, a wire fox terrier named Caesar. These honored guests, the great potentates of Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Strelitz, were already dead, and did not know it. Ridiculous relics of an age that had already elapsed—of swordsmen, doffed hats, and fur-hatted hussars—their kind would soon be incinerated in the trenches of World War I.

The same stench is in the air over a century later, in America, now that George Herbert Walker Bush has been laid to rest. The 41st president of the United States finally expired, after an extended dotage spent leering from a wheelchair like an ailing mob boss. And to a degree that is still somehow surprising, Bush’s death has inspired a low-grade panic among a certain class of American elite—ludicrously rich, self-obsessed in the extreme, lifelong killers.

For those invited, the events Wednesday within the National Cathedral constituted a rearguard maneuver against what should be the final judgment of every living thing. George H.W. Bush dealt out an awful lot of death over the course of his life to a diverse array of peoples: AIDS patients, bereft of comfort and care; terrified Iraqis, slaughtered in retreat or at their homes; young people of color, jailed on an industrial scale. Any remembrance of such victims was an uphill battle, against the cold kind of power that not only killed them, but rendered them despicable first—in effect, worthy of killing.

But now that it’s time for Bush to meet his maker, no expense is being spared to pretend there is some glory in death, when it happens to the right kind of person. The most tangible illustration is in the nauseating pageantry of the funeral ceremonies, all to honor that singular statesman who once vomited into the lap of a Japanese prime minister. Flags are to be flown at half-mast—not merely for a day, or a week, but until 2019. Washington, D.C., was shut down for not one, not two, but three days of mourning, followed by a second memorial service in Houston. A Union Pacific funeral train, its 11 cars and two locomotives painted in the colors of Air Force One, chugged through the Texas hinterland, its arrival capped by the Navy’s first-ever 21-fighter-jet salute, screeching through the sky and climaxing with a “missing man formation.” In this aerial show, one jet breaks away and ascends to the heavens, escorting the commander in chief to his final office, “the Celestial White House,” to be reunited with Barb and Lee Atwater and Bill Casey….

To hell with that. You expect a child to be unstrung by the death of a pet dog, or grandparent; to see the most powerful figures of recent U.S. history, grief-stricken over the death of a 94-year-old man, is not a little bizarre. They are also weeping for themselves and aren’t even sure why, exactly. In the same way that the processes of putrefaction mystified peasants in the Middle Ages, the Beltway village has been gripped by a collective hysteria—perhaps confronting the fact that nothing they do on earth will change the fact that they, too, will die. And it won’t matter what angles they played in their comfortable lives.

Pomp and circumstance are still very important in America—rituals to which the power-worshippers cling, lest the contradictions of their existences become too much to bear. But the construction of George H.W. Bush as some avatar of decency, all noblesse oblige in a gentler era of American politics, is infuriatingly false. The only requirement for adopting this viewpoint is a total, willful ignorance of history.

Perhaps that’s why I was so glad to see Donald Trump sitting among the mourners in the National Cathedral. There he sat—chair a little too far away from the First Lady, eyes wandering, not even pretending he wasn’t bored. He looked like a boy who had got dragged to church, which, really, he was. They say that funerals are for the living, not the dead, and never does that seem more true with all of the smug suggestions, in the media and from the mourners, that this spectacle was somehow a rebuke of Trump, that George H.W. Bush stood in valiant opposition to the presidency today.

But there was Trump, stuffed into his enormous, billowing suit, hands tucked petulantly into his armpits. The media has made a great show of celebrating Bush’s modesty, which is more a reflection on the vulgarity of the Oval Office’s current occupant than anything else. And despite the president kicking Poppy’s favored sons in the teeth, repeatedly, the deceased oh-so-graciously invited Trump to his funeral anyway.

While this was savored as yet another example of the Bush clan’s famous chivalry, any person with an ounce of self-respect would have barred Trump from setting foot in that church. But then, these scions abandoned such lofty ideals long ago; there is a greater game being played here. Virtually every aspect of the nauseating spectacle that was the Bush presidential funeral can be understood as a defensive clinging to power and privilege. Even in death, the doctrine of preemptive action against a vague but almighty threat reigns supreme.

What’s worse, for more of the public than we might like to acknowledge, it seemed to work. The military marching, the passing of a sucking candy to Michelle Obama, George W. Bush breaking down in tears over his aristocrat father’s death—this was comfort food for a broad swath of America. CBS’ Bob Schieffer went so far as to describe the proceedings as the “rituals of democracy”—the rituals in question being a taxpayer-funded entombing to which the public was not invited, in a cathedral constructed exclusively for the masters of the universe. Alan Simpson, the former senator best known of late for advocating the starving of his fellow senior citizens, offered that Bush knew “hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”

Bush sure knew that, didn’t he? The wages of hate. He and his family certainly lacked any such contempt for the masses when his father, Prescott Bush, pocketed a bundle off his partners in Nazi Germany; when he himself conducted an affair for years with his mistress, Jennifer Fitzgerald, ever presenting himself as the dutiful family man; when he kicked his friends at Planned Parenthood to the curb, pretending he’d always hated abortion the moment the vice presidency was dangled in front of him; when he sweatily pardoned all his underlings before the rising waters of Iran-Contra got above his ears; when he had no idea what a supermarket checkout machine was; or served as director of the CIA; or performed any of the other monstrous acts we’ve come to expect from our blue-blooded politicians.

These days, we’re not really living in Donald Trump’s America. It would be nice to think that, and plenty do—eager to pretend the country isn’t likely broken beyond repair, and that Trump is an aberration who will soon pass. That sputtering strain of mustard gas, wafting over the fields and streets, is nothing compared to the marble walls through which it seeped. The racism, the violence, the power-grabbing, the arrogant eternity—it’s a great legacy George H.W. Bush built on, like Reagan and Nixon and Goldwater before him. It’s a shame he couldn’t recognize Trump as his own heir.

Dan O'Sullivan
Dan O'Sullivan is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Daily Beast, Deadspin, Jacobin, and…
Dan O'Sullivan

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