Meeting Bush taught me a lot about the presidency. So did watching Trump.
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Meeting Bush taught me a lot about the presidency. So did watching Trump.

I didn’t agree with Bush on most things. But I left the White House that day feeling the president believed the decisions he made were in the best interests of the country.
Illustration of former Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump
The last Republican to sit in the Oval Office before Trump made an enduring impression on me.MSNBC; Getty Images

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Washington ran off the road during the Trump presidency. After years of trying to seize the wheel during President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, Republicans handed the car keys over to President Donald Trump and, well, we all know what happened.

When I think of the damage done to the presidency in just a single term, my mind goes back 13 years, to a March 2008 meeting in the private residence of the White House with President George W. Bush. The last Republican to sit in the Oval Office before Trump made an enduring impression on me.

Coming to Washington from New York City, I had the typical Big Apple view of the 43rd president. I assumed he was not a particularly smart, incurious puppet of Vice President Dick Cheney. But I came away from that 90-minute meeting with a different perspective.

At the time I was writing editorials about climate change. But because we knew where the president stood on those issues, we decided not to push him on that topic. And then, looking around the room, Bush belted, “Who writes about climate change?” Seated on the sofa to the president’s left, I said, “I do, Mr. President.”

“Well, aren’t you going to ask me a question?”

Any journalist worth their salt will always have a question or two socked away…. just in case. And I was just getting to the meat of my query when the president interrupted me. “I know what you’re going to ask me,” Bush said, pointing in my direction. So, I said, “Yes, Mr. President” and stopped talking.

Truth be told, I don’t remember the question I asked. But I do remember that he asked himself the exact question I was going to ask — and then proceeded to answer it. And when I said, “If I could follow up,” Bush pointed in my direction again, said, “I know what you’re going to ask me now.” And then once again answered the question I was just a breath away from posing.

Of all my experiences in journalism and in Washington, that moment is among the most indelible because of the odd sense of comfort it gave me.

Of all my experiences in journalism and in Washington, that moment is among the most indelible because of the odd sense of comfort it gave me.

I didn’t agree with Bush on most things, least of all the war with Iraq and the so-called global war on terror. But I left the White House that day feeling that the president believed the decisions he made were in the best interests of the country. I could disagree with what he did and how he did it. But I couldn’t deny that his choices were rooted in something bigger than himself.

Nine years later, then-President Donald Trump would cut quite the opposite figure. Over the course of four years, Trump revealed how fragile our Constitution is. The power of our founding document isn’t just its words; its power is derived in large part from the reverence of the 44 men before Trump who swore to protect it. An unprecedented two impeachments proved Trump harbored no such reverence.

By voting Trump out in 2020 and handing the keys of Washington’s proverbial car to President Joe Biden, the nation signaled that it wanted an end to the chaos and a return to some semblance of normalcy and stability. Who knows how long this relative calm will last. Because while Trump is no longer behind the wheel, his rowdy political offspring are still in the backseat. And the results of the 2022 midterm elections will be the clearest sign of whether they once again succeeded in steering Biden, the Democrats and Washington off the road.