At Trump's Convention, It's George W. Bush's Legacy That's On Trial

When will the 43rd president return to his party's main stage?

CLEVELAND ― This is Donald Trump’s convention; that much is certain. But the man not too far from the conversation, whose legacy hangs like a cold fog over the proceedings, is hundreds of miles away, with no plans to show up.

For the third time in a row, George W. Bush is skipping his party’s convention ― a remarkable string of absences for the man who once ruled the Republican Party. But what it actually says about the state of the GOP and the former president himself is a topic of sharp disagreement here in Cleveland.

This much is certain. At the highest levels of the Trump campaign, the Bush family is viewed with hostility. Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort could barely finish his perfunctory niceties on Monday morning ― “We would have liked to have them [here]” ― before dropping the diplomatic facade: “They do not reflect the broad strokes of the Republican Party.”

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and nearly vice presidential nominee, was more biting. “The reason people nominated Donald Trump is because they weren’t happy and, frankly, I think the Bushes are behaving childishly,” Gingrich said Sunday in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “Jeb lost. Get over it.”

In the convention halls, the absence of the Bush family has sparked a more nuanced reaction, a mix of disappointment, anger, sympathy and indifference. Some felt that the former president let ego get ahead of his party’s future.

“He should be here,” said Soraya Zamora, a delegate from Texas. “He was a president of the United States and he has been a leader of this party. He should be here as well. This is not about Donald Trump. This is about the Republican Party and showing everybody that we can manage ourselves and put things aside for the good of the party. Not just the good of the party. For the good of the country.”

Others felt that George W. Bush deserved the scorn.

“I think he did everything wrong ― everything wrong from 9/11, when he should have shut the borders down, and he did not. That was the beginning of the end,” said Cathy Reilly, a retired teacher from New York, a state that Trump carried by an overwhelming margin in the Republican primary.

But there were also those who saw Bush’s decision to stay away as a virtue ― emblematic of a man who is content, even eager, to be done with politics in his post-presidency.

“I’ll be honest with you. Had I gone through what President Bush had gone through, I probably would have my belly full and said, ‘You know what, I don’t need this,’” said Nelson Spear, who served on a Secret Service detail when Bush came to New Mexico in 2004. “If somebody is addicted to peanuts, and they just have to eat peanuts all the time ― if you just have your belly full, sometimes you can have one too many peanuts and say, ‘Man, I’m never going to have a peanut again.’”

Trump has made it clear: This is not Bush's Republican Party anymore.
Trump has made it clear: This is not Bush's Republican Party anymore.
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Even with the GOP primary all but over, Trump himself has shown few signs of letting up his attacks on the former president. He regularly speaks out against the Iraq War (even though he initially supported it) and turned heads earlier this month when he praised Saddam Hussein for being “good” at killing terrorists. Bush’s allies, still smarting from the time Trump faulted the former president for failing to prevent the 9/11 terror attacks, have found this behavior repugnant. His treatment of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during the primary only crystallized that opinion. Jeb Bush, through a spokesperson, declined comment.

Delegates in Cleveland sympathized with George W. Bush for having had to watch his brother get beaten up and his own record attacked during the primary campaign. But they did so even as they echoed some of the criticisms that Trump has leveled at the former president, from the increase in the national debt under his watch, to the decision to invade Iraq, to the government surveillance state that emerged after 9/11.

“For the most part, I’m a fan [of Bush],” said Texas delegate Sue Stringer, who nevertheless criticized his record on civil liberties. Asked if Trump had been fair to the 43rd president, she responded, No. I don’t think Trump has been fair to anybody.”

“In a primary situation, all is fair in war. Most of the time, they move on from the primary. I think the day will come when the Bushes and Donald Trump will put this behind them,” said New York delegate Doug Colety, the chair of the Westchester Republican County Committee.

Bush certainly isn’t the first former president to deal with a diminished standing after he left office. But his distance from his party’s convention is historically remarkable. Jimmy Carter showed up, although he was given only a brief acknowledgment during the 1984 and 1988 Democratic conventions. In 1992, as Carter’s image slowly began to recover, Democrats invited him to address the gathering. He did not speak again until the 2004 convention, however.

Herbert Hoover, having ushered in the Great Depression, still attended his party confabs after he left the White House. He went to the 1936 Republican convention, which was also held in Cleveland. And he just kept on going every four years until 1960.

With this year’s absence, there will be at least 16 years between the last time and the next time George W. Bush shows his face at a Republican convention. Should Trump win the presidency, that the absence could extend to 20 or more. When he ultimately does come back, however, the expectation is that the slights, hurt feelings and tensions will be minor footnotes.

“If he showed up, he’d be given an overwhelming welcome,” said David Keene, a longtime conservative activist. I think [Trump and Manafort] would cheer him too.”

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