H.W., Trump, and Saturday Night Live

December 5, 2018 Updated: December 6, 2018

Commentary

As George H.W. Bush lay in state at the Capitol, he received well-deserved praise for his service to the nation, his leadership, and his general all-around decency.

To a certain extent, that is to be expected when any president passes, but Bush was a legitimate war hero, an accomplished statesman, and he remained a kind and gentle man throughout his life. That is why the injection of politics into so many of the tributes given to him has been a little hard to swallow.  

As one example, I pulled up an article related to Saturday Night Live comedian Dana Carvey’s recurring impersonation of President Bush, and how Bush (after having lost his bid for re-election) nevertheless invited Carvey to the White House. That is a nice story.

The sub-headline, however, said, “Hard to imagine our current POTUS making such an invite to Alec Baldwin.” The article explained, “Unlike President Donald Trump, who bristles publicly at Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of him on the current ‘SNL,’ Bush seemed to take Carvey’s mockery in stride.”

Why did Trump have to be brought into this?

Carvey’s visit to the White House can be found online, and it’s well worth viewing. He was hilarious. He entered the room to the playing of “Hail to the Chief” and took the podium with a joke about his relative shortness. He was somewhat nervous, explaining that “this is very, very strange,” but he didn’t miss a beat. After a joke about impersonating the president to the staff the night before, he explained how he developed the Bush impression.

“You start out with Mister Rogers, then you add a little John Wayne. Suddenly, you have George Herbert Walker Bush.” That’s actually a pretty good combination to explain Bush’s character as well.

Comedian and talk show host Conan O’Brien called Carvey’s Bush character “a sweet impression.” The two men even developed a lasting friendship. “[Carvey] told me I’ve tried not to cross the line of fairness,” Bush wrote in his diary. “I told him I didn’t think he had.” Thus, Bush could laugh at the good-natured humor from Carvey’s character.

Upon Bush’s passing, Carvey released a statement saying, “It was an honor and a privilege to know and spend time with George H.W. Bush for over 25 years. … I will miss my friend.”

Baldwin has never indicated a desire to draw a line of fairness, much less hold to one. With his impersonation of Trump, he is trying to land body blows. Yet, in story after story, the implication seems to be that Bush could roll with punches in a way that Trump, with his enormous ego, simply can’t. These are political statements lightly disguised as fond memories of the late president.

From Satire to Attack

Just this past weekend, on the day after Bush died, Baldwin made his latest appearance as Trump on SNL. It was a cold opening set in Argentina, where Trump and other world leaders had gathered for the G-20 summit.

In the sketch, Trump worries about Robert Mueller’s investigation and complains that the former FBI director is coming after him as he talks to various figures, including Melania (who contemplates getting Trump’s money after he is arrested), attorney Michael Cohen (Mikey Cocopuffs), Rudy Giuliani (as a vampire), and a shirtless Putin (who breaks up with his “main girlfriend” Trump for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, explaining that he “prefers presidents who don’t get indicted”). The scene concludes with the ensemble joining in with Trump singing, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina, the truth is I’m very guilty.”

That isn’t the same kind of kidding that Carvey gave to Bush. As Michael S. Rosenwald wrote in the Washington Post, “What feels like satire is actually an attack.”

Later in the same SNL episode, “Weekend Update” anchors Michael Che and Colin Jost played a very nice tribute to Bush featuring a back and forth between the late president and Carvey. Bush critiqued Carvey in a very funny way.

Introducing that segment, Jost said, “President Bush was famously a very warm and gracious man who always understood the power in being able to laugh at yourself.” They seemed sincere, but following a couple of “news” stories critical of Trump, it felt a lot like another of those political jabs.

As an aside, Trump actually hosted SNL during his presidential campaign. Some of the skits were very funny and permitted him to poke fun at himself, and his promises to “keep winning” and have Mexico pay for the border wall.

The repeated nature of articles and statements like these are almost the flip side of the funeral for Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, which turned into a political rally. The shots at Trump miss the point of what we should be doing at this time: talking about H.W. and remembering him.

If you want civility and good humor all around, start offering it now—even to those who may not deserve it.

Another SNL alumnus and former Democratic senator from Minnesota, Al Franken, wrote a tribute to Bush on his Facebook page. It is a wonderful account of Franken’s trip to visit Bush after his presidency. The task was to film a cold opening for SNL in which the former president wished guest host Dana Carvey well in the role.

Franken reprints the script; it is short but hilarious. It begins with Bush noting that SNL made fun of him on a regular basis and vowing that he would have his revenge, but not right then because, using Carvey’s Bush catchphrase, “Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.”

As I sat down to write this, I thought that Franken had done what so many others have done—used praise for Bush as a subterfuge to bash Trump. Franken left comedy to go into politics, and his positions are far from the sitting president. As I re-read the post, however, I realized that Franken hadn’t done that. He did what you’re supposed to do. He simply wrote a nice tribute to the late president.

The impression that I had received about this being another jab at Trump came not from Franken but from the numerous comments that followed the re-posting that I originally read. Maybe Franken intended that, but I don’t think so. I’d like to think that a guy who walked from comedy to politics (only to be ousted, fairly or not) understood that this wasn’t the time to take a jab, but to celebrate a life.

Thanks, Al, and thank you, Mr. Bush.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at The University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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