Funerals Teach Us Much About Our Presidents
A chief executive's character and soul are on display when the great are laid to rest.
September 6, 2009 - 12:41 am
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.
His eulogy at the funeral of slain Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin later that fall was similarly moving. Once again, he avoided cookie-cutter formulations in favor of intensely personal and personalized comments. He spoke directly to those in mourning, in this case an entire country. (“So, let me say to the people of Israel, even in your hour of darkness, his spirit lives on and so you must not lose your spirit. Look at what you have accomplished, making a once barren desert bloom, building a thriving democracy in a hostile terrain, winning battles and wars and now winning the peace, which is the only enduring victory.”) And his concluding words were among the more heartfelt of his presidency:
This week, Jews all around the world are studying the Torah portion in which God tests the faith of Abraham, patriarch of the Jews and the Arabs. He commands Abraham to sacrifice Yitzhak. “Take your son, the one you love, Yitzhak.” As we all know, as Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak. Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak. But Israel’s covenant with God for freedom, for tolerance, for security, for peace — that covenant must hold. That covenant was Prime Minister Rabin’s life’s work. Now we must make it his lasting legacy. His spirit must live on in us.
The Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning, never speaks of death, but often speaks of peace. In its closing words, may our hearts find a measure of comfort and our souls, the eternal touch of hope. Ne she Shalom, bemrumov, huya asay Shalom Elihenu, be al Kol Israel, Vi emruv, Amen, and Shalom, Haver.
His final words — “Goodbye, friend” — become an iconic phrase for Israelis.
This was the “good” Clinton. But there was also the bad, insincere, and undisciplined Clinton which also revealed itself at the funeral of his cabinet secretary, political ally, and friend Ron Brown. Clinton was caught in a moment of inappropriate jocularity, yucking it up as he left the proceedings. Then, quickly realizing he was on camera, his laughs turned to affected tears, with a dramatic rub of his eyes. Well, that was Clinton too.
Bush’s funeral highpoint came at the National Cathedral just three days after 9/11. With the buildings in New York and Virginia still in fumes and the rescue efforts still going on, Bush stepped to the fore, seizing his moment as both a healer and commander-in-chief. He captured the raw pain of the nation:
On Tuesday, our country was attacked with deliberate and massive cruelty. We have seen the images of fire and ashes and bent steel.
Now come the names, the list of casualties we are only beginning to read:
They are the names of men and women who began their day at a desk or in an airport, busy with life.
They are the names of people who faced death and in their last moments called home to say, be brave and I love you.
They are the names of passengers who defied their murderers and prevented the murder of others on the ground.
They are the names of men and women who wore the uniform of the United States and died at their posts.
They are the names of rescuers — the ones whom death found running up the stairs and into the fires to help others.
We will read all these names. We will linger over them and learn their stories, and many Americans will weep.
And he also set the course for the nation: “War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others; it will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.” And, as was his style, one could sense Bush’s emotions just below the surface and the tears just short of flowing. This was quintessential Bush: a firm grasp on good and evil, a tender affection for his fellow citizens, and an endearing inability to mask his true feelings.
Funerals and memorials are highly staged events of course. But they often don’t give much time to prepare and invariably reveal who and what our leaders are made of, which talents they posses, and which they lack. Obama’s recent outing suggests there is less to the man than meets the eye. He will, if he is to regain the trust and affection of the American people, have to do better — as his predecessors did. And not just at funerals.