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US pauses for Bush funeral in brief respite from partisanship

Guests arrive at the National Cathedral in Washington for the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. (Erin Schaff/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

Official Washington will turn out to honor the late President George H.W. Bush on Wednesday, Dec. 5, with the full pageantry of a state funeral, bringing President Donald Trump together with his three most recent predecessors for the service at the National Cathedral.

The moment will provide a rare public show of respect for the traditions of the capital by a president whose tweets and public statements have shattered the boundaries of political discourse. Trump will sit in the pews as Washington eulogizes a political figure renowned for his scrupulous social etiquette and prolific handwritten thank-you notes.

Left unsaid will be the years of criticism and attacks the president has leveled against the Bush family, as well as the Bush family's at times barely disguised contempt for Trump, whose approach to leadership runs at odds with the "kinder, gentler" conservatism the late president espoused.

It will be the first time Trump will be in close proximity to Barack and Michelle Obama or Bill and Hillary Clinton since his inauguration nearly two years ago. He has since issued countless attacks on Twitter and at political rallies attacking both former first couples.

Trump wasn't welcome at the last two occasions that brought former presidents together. Former first lady Barbara Bush, who died earlier this year, made clear she didn't want the president at her funeral. He also wasn't invited to the funeral for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who died in August.

Trump's disparagement of the Bush family and its governance is voluminous.

As recently as July, at a campaign rally in Montana, Trump mocked one of President H.W. Bush's signature phrases. "Thousand points of light, what the hell is that?" he asked the crowd. "Has anyone ever figured that one out?"

At a 2016 primary debate, Trump criticized George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in an attack on his brother Jeb, who challenged Trump for the nomination. "George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty," Trump said.

Decades earlier, while the elder Bush was in office, Trump hit at a fundamental difference between them: "I like George Bush very much and support him and always will. But I disagree with him when he talks of a kinder, gentler America. I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it's literally going to cease to exist," Trump told Playboy in 1990.

The disdain was reciprocated.

According to biographer Jon Meacham, Trump told Bush adviser Lee Atwater in 1988 that he'd be available to be Bush's running mate. Bush "thought the overture 'strange and unbelievable,'" Meacham wrote.

In 2011, when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd mentioned Trump's birther campaign against Obama to the elder Bush, Bush responded, "He's an ass."

With the country -- and the world -- watching, the president and the Bush family are staging a public detente that belies their history. Whatever his feelings about the former presidents, Trump dutifully swallowed them this week. He has behaved in presidential fashion by declaring Wednesday to be a national day of mourning during which the federal government is closed, giving most federal employees have the day off, and traveling to the Capitol Monday evening to pay his respects silently at the late president's casket.

Trump invited former President George W. Bush and his family to stay at Blair House, the official guest residence across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, and crossed the street on Tuesday to pay them a visit. Melania Trump gave former first lady Laura Bush a tour of the White House Christmas decorations on Tuesday.

But Trump wasn't invited to deliver a eulogy at the the funeral Wednesday at the National Cathedral, where services begin at 10 a.m. CST.

"What people want to talk about is, 'Well, why isn't the president giving the eulogy?'" former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, R -- whom Trump famously derided during the 2016 Republican primary as "low energy" -- said Tuesday, hinting at the tension and defusing it with a joke.

"It's because we have a unique circumstance here; my brother was president. First dibs, as we used to say," Bush said.

Jeb Bush, speaking at a Wall Street Journal event in Washington, added that Trump "couldn't have been nicer" in his condolence calls to him and to George W. Bush.

Trump's public statements about the late president since his death have been brief and positive, albeit with a hint at their cool relationship. At his first public appearance Saturday after Bush's death was announced, Trump offered his condolences only after being asked about Bush's death by a reporter.

"He was a very fine man," Trump said of his predecessor. "He was just a high-quality man who truly loved his family."

He added, tellingly, "One thing that came through loud and clear, he was very proud of his family and very much loved his family."

But he brushed aside a question about whether he regretted any of his public disparagement of the Bushes. "Thank you very much, everybody," he said curtly, signaling that he wouldn't answer the question.

This article was written by Jennifer Epstein, a reporter for The Washington Post.