Why are the Bushes, Clintons, Obamas and Melania smiling so broadly at a funeral?

Jonathan Freedland
The Bush family with the Clintons, Obamas and Melania Trump at Barbara Bush’s funeral. Photograph: Paul Morse/AP

Consider him the elephant not in the room, simultaneously absent from this picture and looming over it.

Donald Trump did not attend Saturday’s funeral of Barbara Bush in Houston, Texas. Reporters were told that was because Trump generously wanted to spare the mourning Bush family the “disruptions due to added security” that would have come with his presidential presence. But that same White House statement may well have given the game away when it added that Trump did not attend “out of respect for the Bush family and friends attending the service”. Normally, the way you pay your respects to a grieving family is to show up, not stay away. Unless, of course, you know that the bereaved family in question hates your guts – in which case the greatest courtesy you can pay them in their hour of distress is to leave them alone.

Which might explain the unstated emotion that seems to join everyone in this picture. It’s an unusual group photo: they’re not family, they’re not friends, and they’re not a team. Rather, the official connection between them is that they have all lived in the country’s most important residence, whether as president or first lady – or in Hillary Clinton’s case, having attempted the double. They are there to honour the missing member of this exclusive club, the woman whose death has brought them to this moment. (The only living members missing are Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, who were travelling.)

The warmth between them – Republican George W Bush with arms around both his wife and Democrat Hillary – is the camaraderie you often see between one-time partisan rivals now bonded by having shared a rare and extraordinary experience. (You see something similar in those pictures of duelling heavyweight boxers reunited in retirement.) But there’s something else too.

The picture is not sombre, even though this is a funeral. Obama and Bill Clinton are smiling broadly; W has that lopsided grin that suggests he’s cracked one of his fratboy jokes. They seem relaxed. And the source of that relaxation? Could it possibly be their collective relief that Trump is not there?

That, surely, is the one thing this group can agree on. Bush Sr revealed last year that he voted for Hillary in 2016 rather than back the official Republican nominee whom he’d dismissed as a “blowhard”. Bush Jr said he left his ballot blank. Neither of them ever endorsed Trump, who had mocked son/brother Jeb Bush as “low energy” and whom Barbara herself had condemned as a “comedian”, a “showman” and an appalling sexist. Bushes, Clintons, Obamas: all have their own reasons to despise the Donald. He denied Hillary her dream; he claimed Barack Obama was not born in the US; he is the very opposite of a Bush Republican.

Which leaves Melania. Shouldn’t she be uncomfortable among all these people who despise her husband? What explains her apparent ease, smiling as readily as the rest of them?

The clue might be in some of the other pictures taken at Saturday’s service. There she was, seated next to Barack Obama, looking positively cheery. “Have you ever, ever, EVER seen Melania smile like this, and look this relaxed, beside her own husband? Ever?,” tweeted the science writer Steve Silberman. Others noted the oddity that here was the first lady looking happier than she had in ages – at a funeral.

There is indeed no shortage of pictures of Melania looking miserable or ignored by Trump, as he walks up or down the stairs of Air Force One without her, not showing his wife even the most basic courtesy, let alone marital affection. Compared to the hostile environment that is a Trump marriage, a moment with the real-life presidents’ club must have felt like blissful respite.