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Funerals Teach Us Much About Our Presidents

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.