Donald Trump may be a stark contrast to past Republican presidents but he bears comparison to a Democrat who survived impeachment and left office with a high approval rating.
The 41st and 45th presidents are a study in contrasts: Bush the personification of the New England Wasp establishment – his father was a Wall St banker and US senator – Trump the outsider, the hustler/salesman who absorbed the lesson at his father’s knee that rules are for other people.
Bush’s long career of public service began on his 18th birthday in 1942, when he enlisted in the US Navy. He became one of its youngest aviators, flying 58 combat missions and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Trump avoided the draft on medical and educational grounds, and infamously told shock jock Howard Stern that steering clear of sexually transmitted diseases at the height of Studio 54 decadence was his “personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.” He then agreed with Stern’s proposition that “every vagina is a landmine”.
The Bush Sr and Trump approaches to international affairs are so far apart that it’s hard to believe both were/are Republicans. Bush, a former ambassador to the United Nations, was an internationalist who assembled the 35-nation coalition that liberated Kuwait in the first Gulf War. Trump, an unworldly isolationist who treats traditional allies like sponging distant relatives, has effectively cancelled US membership of the Western world.
Steeped in politics from childhood and having been a congressman and vice president, Bush was fully versed in protocols and traditions, venerated the institutions of state and understood the symbolic nature of the presidency and its awesome responsibilities. Trump is an opportunist who instinctively grasped that, in a celebrity culture, the presidency was wide open to a brand-name maverick unhampered by honesty, political correctness or a sense of shame. Being nothing like Bush Sr is what got Trump where he is today, almost literally so, since a key step in his rise was torpedoing the candidacy of Jeb Bush, the Republican establishment’s favoured candidate, the 41st president’s second son and more of a chip off the old block than older brother, and 43rd president, George W. As Rick Wilson, author of Everything Trump Touches Dies: A Republican Strategist Gets Real About the Worst President Ever and as vituperative a critic as the title suggests, put it: “Bush personified noblesse oblige; Trump is an avatar of the lowest common denominator.”
But although Trump is a departure from the norm in many ways, and to a nerve-jangling degree, he’s not the only recent president who can be seen as anti-Bush. There in the front pew reserved for presidents current and former and their wives was Bill Clinton, who, in 1992, ousted Bush Sr.
Like Trump, Clinton managed to avoid serving in Vietnam. He was granted an educational exemption while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and, on his return home, engaged in complex – and, in the eyes of some, borderline duplicitous – manoeuvring to keep himself out of harm’s way. Like Trump, he could play fast and loose with the truth (hence the nickname “Slick Willie”); like Trump, he was a serial adulterer. Wife Hillary called him “a hard dog to keep on the porch”, a characterisation that came to seem benignly indulgent when the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted.
As an aside, the idea that the US venerates military heroes isn’t borne out by recent political history. The notion probably took hold after Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War II, was elected president in 1952 despite having no direct political experience. After Eisenhower’s two terms, John F Kennedy, a dashing torpedo boat captain in the Pacific theatre, defeated Richard Nixon, who spent the war engaged in logistics rather than action.
Since then, it has been more a case of heroes need not apply. In 1972, Nixon trounced George McGovern, who flew 35 combat missions over German-occupied Europe and also won the Distinguished Flying Cross. Clinton gained a second term by defeating Bob Dole, who spent three years recovering from terrible war wounds – and, at 95, was helped out of his wheelchair to salute Bush’s casket. In 2004, Bush Jr, another Vietnam no-show, defeated John Kerry, who won five combat medals there. In 2008, Barack Obama overcame McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
But what makes the Clinton-Trump comparison almost irresistible is the fact that the former was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice on the basis of evidence gathered and documentation provided by an independent counsel.
It’s instructive to recall how that drama unfolded. Impeachment proceedings were initiated in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans were in the majority. (Clinton is a Democrat.) When the new Congress convenes in January, the Democrats will be the majority and launching impeachment proceedings against Trump is on their to-do list.
Impeachment requires a two-thirds majority (67 votes) in the Senate. Clinton was acquitted without a single Democrat voting for impeachment on either charge. He left office almost two years later with a 68% approval rating, placing him in the exalted company of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
In the same poll, 58% of respondents answered “no” to the question: “Do you generally think Bill Clinton is honest and trustworthy?” However, the same percentage believed he’d be remembered as an “outstanding or above average” president.
If Trump wanted to mount the Clintonian argument that his achievements cancel out his character flaws, he could start by taking a leaf out of his predecessors’ books and demonstrate a base level of competence. That won’t happen. His delusions of grandeur – this week he tweeted, “The Trump Administration has accomplished more than any other US Administration in its first two (not even) years of existence” – and manifest unfitness for office ensure that competence is simultaneously beneath him and beyond him.
This article was first published in the December 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.