Back in 2010, still early in Barack Obama’s presidency, a small group of Minnesota businessmen came up with a mischievous idea. They rented billboards to display a picture of former President George W. Bush, smiling and waving, and the words, “Miss Me Yet?”
No, was my immediate response. I liked Obama just fine, thank you. But nothing has changed my mind more persuasively than the presidency of Donald Trump.
That realization came during a lighthearted moment between Bush and former first lady Michelle Obama, who was sitting next to him at Sen. John McCain’s funeral Saturday in Washington’s National Cathedral.
During Sen. Joe Lieberman’s eulogy to his dearly departed friend, television cameras caught Bush quietly sneaking what appeared to be a piece of hard candy from his wife, Laura Bush, to Michelle Obama, who thanked him with a smile.
I, too, smiled. Ah, those were the days, I thought, as my mind raced back to the days of the Old Normal, when political sides, even when they were increasingly polarized to the point of gridlock, seemed able to disagree without being too disagreeable.
I was not alone. Twitter went wild. The “sweet moment,” as some news reporters inevitably called it, went viral on social media. The hashtag #candygate was born, as if the mere sight of the Obamas and the Bushes getting along cordially would be regarded as scandalous by hardliners on both sides — as it shouldn’t be.
George and Michelle’s candy moment would not be a big deal — their friendship is well-documented — were it not for the extreme and often distasteful ways that both are demonized in social networks and the tinfoil-hat paranoid websites and mass emails.
What a heartwarming respite this cordial scene provided from all the cat-and-dog fights that characterize Washington’s political scene these days, even at McCain’s funeral. Knowing that he was dying of cancer, the Arizona Republican made sure Trump was not invited, which turned his absence into the biggest elephant that was not in the room.
Although his name was not mentioned, speakers’ references to McCain’s virtues were immediately taken as criticisms of the guy now in the Oval Office — or, on that morning, a golf course. On that level, the service sounded like what a New Yorker magazine headline called “The Biggest Resistance Meeting Yet.”
Amid the tension of the New Normal, the image of Bushes and Obamas getting along displayed an alternative narrative, a reminder of the principled leadership that made McCain a “maverick” who usually stood for principle even when appeals to anger, fear, resentments and suspicions against minorities and other scapegoats might have won him more votes.
As Brenna Williams, a CNN politics editor, said in a tweet: “I’d like to think that moments like this between W. Bush and Michelle Obama are what McCain was hoping for.”
Indeed, as Maya Angelou liked to say, people may not remember what you said but they’ll always remember how you made them feel. The sight of the Obamas and the Bushes, iconic families for opposing political cultures, gave us a feel-good moment that amplified a message of intergroup cooperation that McCain left in his final message to all of us.
“We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals,” he said in his final written address. “We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”
McCain’s sentiments should remind us that in our increasingly diverse society we all have to provide the glue that holds us together. Instead of missing the “good old days,” we need to work together to create better days ahead.
Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/pagespage.