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Funerals Teach Us Much About Our Presidents

A chief executive's character and soul are on display when the great are laid to rest.

by
Jennifer Rubin

Bio

September 6, 2009 - 12:41 am
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You learn a lot about a president at a funeral. Funerals and memorial services, at least those that are worthy of a presidential appearance, are major events for the nation, demanding a level of eloquence and public stature that tests a president’s communication skills. But they are also intensely human endeavors, revealing something of our chief executive’s character and soul.

We certainly learned something about Barack Obama at Ted Kennedy’s funeral — just as we did about Bill Clinton (both good and bad) at funerals during his term and George W. Bush during his.

Peggy Noonan gives an apt description of Obama’s appearance:

The president walked into the funeral and moved toward the front pews nodding, shaking hands. He hugged Mrs. Kennedy, nodded some more, shook more hands. He was dignified and contained, he was utterly appropriate, and he was cold.

He is cold, like someone who is contained not because he’s disciplined and successfully restrains his emotions, but because there’s not that much to restrain. This is the dark side of cool. One wonders if this will play well with the American people. Long-term it is hard to get people to trust your policies if they think you’re coolly operating on some intellectual or ideological abstractions.

His eulogy was unmemorable, “intentionally understated” a helpful media spinner offered. And this was for a giant figure in Obama’s party who was critical to his career and whose endorsement was described by Obama as the greatest moment of his life. He could not muster any sign of true emotion or any original word.

This is the plight of Obama now — unconnected and ineffective, out of things to say. His eloquence and his talent it seems are entirely campaign-based. Without imaginary villains or a real election opponent he lacks material. And let’s face it: he’s a bit of a bore.

Bill Clinton was never boring, of course. Three funerals highlighted the best and the worst of Clinton. His oration at the Oklahoma bombing memorial was a high point.

Emotion-filled and replete with biblical references, Clinton stepped into the role of healer-in-chief with an address in Oklahoma City. It was credited at the time as helping to restore his political standing, which had taken a beating in the congressional elections the prior fall. Unlike Obama, Clinton made a special effort to identify with us, not stand above the fray. (“I am honored to be here today to represent the American people. But I have to tell you that Hillary and I also come as parents, as husband and wife, as people who were your neighbors for some of the best years of our lives.”) And like a skillful preacher, he spoke of good and evil, sin and righteousness.

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