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Seeing Trump through Bush’s modest lens

President George H.W. Bush was possessed of a modesty sadly lacking in President Trump. Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Associated Press

The passing of George Herbert Walker Bush has become a magnifying American moment, a time to reflect on qualities our 41st president possessed that our 45th lacks.

And there, nothing stands out more than a sense of modesty. Whatever Bush’s private self-regard may have been, he was instinctively disinclined to boast about himself. A certain humility was, if not his genetic inheritance, certainly a familial legacy. His mother had taken pains not to raise a brood of braggarts. When any of her children would start in on an adolescent celebration of self, Dorothy Bush would end it by saying that “we’ve heard enough of the ‘Great I Am.’ ” Or as Bush himself sometimes recalled, his mother had told him, “Don’t brag on yourself.”


And he didn’t. About the closest he came was to celebrate a good golf shot or horseshoe throw by labeling himself “Mr. Smooth.” He went to Yale, and he did well there, his grades earning him membership in Phi Beta Kappa, the prestigious academic honor society.

George H.W. Bush as captain of the Yale University baseball team, in 1948. Yale University via New York Times

But Bush downplayed his brains, protesting that he was no intellectual. It would have been completely unimaginable for him to note, a la Donald Trump, that he had attended one of the best schools, or to boast that he was not only “really smart” but also really qualified as a genius.

Having served as a congressman, a UN ambassador, envoy to China, CIA director, and vice president before winning the Republican presidential nod in 1988, candidate Bush was a worldly, experienced nominee. Yet he would never have boasted, as Trump did, that he knew more about a foreign militant organization than US generals do, or more about infrastructure than anybody “in the history of the country,” or more about taxes than anybody “maybe in the history of the world.”


And certainly the nation never heard him make a claim that came within a light year of Trump’s September assertion that “in less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” an assessment that occasioned a spontaneous ripple of mirth at the United Nations. Despite being known and respected around the world, Bush would never have said anything comparable to our current president’s assertion that “the leading authority on China” had declared that that country “has total respect for Donald Trump and for Donald Trump’s very, very large brain.”

For Bush, it would have been absolutely unthinkable to behave in such a manner. He saw the presidency as something larger than himself, and he would have considered that kind of cheap braggadocio as beneath the dignity of the office.

And he would have been right.

For those used to the ethos of a less egotistical era, the unsurpassed and unrelenting solipsism that Trump has injected into American politics has been one of his most off-putting traits. It’s the kind of thing one expects of professional wrestlers as they bluster away in mock-serious showmanship, not of the president of the United States of America.

It’s equally strange that a party so quick to skewer Al Goreor Barack Obama or Joe Biden for an occasional remark that hints at an exaggerated sense of self would embrace with cult-like devotion a man whose egotism would make Narcissus blush.


As we remember the first President Bush, let’s reflect on the sterling quality of modesty — and lament its current absence in the Oval Office.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.