They looked relaxed, comfortable in their own skin and happy to be in each other’s company. They looked normal. The sight of former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at the Presidents Cup golf tournament made one downright nostalgic — and a little sheepish about not appreciating them more when they were in office, even the ones we passionately disagreed with.
In the 24 years of their combined presidencies, we experienced war, economic calamity, government shutdowns, an impeachment and a myriad of other painful episodes. One segment of the electorate differed strongly with the policies of one or more of them. Looking back, however, some of the criticism was entirely deserved and some was disproportionate, unfair and wrongheaded.
Despite their mistakes and missteps, we passed positive, bipartisan measures, including welfare reform, No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D reform and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). We normalized relations with Vietnam, passed the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Magnitsky Act — again on a bipartisan basis. We helped end the Balkan war, saved the auto industry and prevented a financial meltdown (thanks to Bush’s and then Obama’s support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP). Some part of the electorate approved of more controversial items under each president; the electorate did not believe by a large majority (as they do now) that any of them was “unfit” to hold office, no matter how strongly some of us disagreed with some of their actions.
More important — and we took this entirely for granted — none of these presidents thought the office was an opportunity for self-enrichment, stoking racial divisions, demonizing immigrants or delegitimizing the free press. Pick your least favorite of the three, and he will be regarded as a giant in comparison with President Donald Trump.
Collectively, in 24 years they told fewer lies than Trump has in eight months in office. Each actually bothered to read things, appoint honorable and experienced people to high offices, filled political slots, tried to understand the issues and cared about the content of the laws they signed.
These presidents did not hold office in some distant time. We don’t have to go through decaying microfilm and stacks of yellowed, crumbling documents to recall their presidencies. We can, it seems, collectively decide that the Trump presidency is an aberration, a horrible mistake. He need not define either our time nor our country. He can be a blip on the political radar, passing out of sight before he does permanent damage. We can at least reestablish the baseline decency and conscientiousness the three predecessors displayed.
We are tempted to overstate the influence of a single president, to proclaim ourselves inevitably on the road to ruin. We should avoid the addiction of defeatism and the lure of resignation. These three presidents (and George H.W. Bush as well) can help — by setting an example of public civility and cooperation and at appropriate times speaking out to defend American values and democratic norms. They can address audiences jointly and make videos defending the free press, denouncing moral relativism when it comes to neo-Nazis and deploring the temptation to shut ourselves off from the world and repudiate objective reality.
It’s not just these three presidents who can and do have the opportunity to wrest our country back. We’ve seen moral leadership from generals (the heads of each service, the head of the Air Force Academy, etc.), business leaders and athletes. (Among many, Aaron Rodgers spoke eloquently: “Beauty is, it’s a free country so they can choose to do it or not. The messaging towards this unfortunately needs to continue to be redirected, I think. It’s never been about the national anthem. It’s never been about the military. We’re all patriotic in the locker room. We love our troops. This is about something bigger than that — an invitation to show unity.”) They should be commended, and others from all walks of life should follow their lead.
In short, Trump can be a reprehensible outlier, a president elected by a minority under bizarre circumstances with aid from a foreign power. To do that, we need to regain our bearings, recall our distant and immediate past and decide collectively that we will replace him as soon as possible with someone within the mainstream of our values and beliefs, someone whom we would not be embarrassed to call our president. We cannot wait for Congress, especially members of Trump’s own deeply warped party, to do it. The responsibility lies with the rest of us.