Columns » John Brummett

Coretta’s all-American service

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Whose funeral is it, anyway? And what’s wrong with an American president’s having to sit through an impassioned and morality-based criticism of his actions and policies?

Isn’t that, in fact, America at its very best, free and open and honest, its elected leader accountable and accessible and openly challenged, its citizens energetically engaged, the political discourse vigorous, even uncomfortable, but ultimately tolerant, tame and civilized?

These aren’t altogether rhetorical questions. They need to be answered in light of the way some Republicans are crying exploitation and foul from a little Bush policy bashing in Bush’s actual presence at Coretta Scott King’s memorial service Tuesday.

To start, the funeral belongs to the bereaved. It is the time and place for mournful commemoration and happy celebration of the life ended. It is to be conducted with a style and substance the bereaved choose respectfully and intimately.

If Mrs. King’s family and closest friends knew or strongly believed that she would have wanted certain political opinions expressed, since those opinions represented merely the essence of her life, then they were obliged to express them.

Censoring themselves because of the attendance of the president of the United States would have sold Mrs. King and a free country short — sold her, and it, out, even.

As for what’s wrong with an American president’s having to sit for this kind of thing from time to time, the answer is that nothing is wrong with it. It might do him some good.

Yes, absolutely — this is America at its very best. The best hope for the rest of the world is that it can come to express itself as freely and respond to difference as civilly.

Nobody got hurt. No rocks were thrown. Neither law nor order was threatened. No coup was remotely contemplated.

All that happened was that passionate free expression broke out, mostly about war and poor people. President Bush could have expected a little of what he got. But he could not have dared to stay away.

This was a service in honor of a great American, the widow of another, both icons of the epic struggle for civil rights. Bush’s absence would have been a greater wrong, a broader and more piercing affront, than the occasional criticism he weathered.

For his part, never has George W. warranted more respect. He spoke briefly, respectfully and appropriately. He sat with barely a wince for hours, taking in stride occasional criticism of a war he started and a pervasive poverty his administration has done little to fight.

John Lowery, a protege of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered the most stinging criticisms. Bush responded by giving Lowery a standing ovation and bear-hugging him afterward.

Only Jimmy Carter might deserve criticism. There is an unwritten code among presidents that they must demonstrate respect for their shared office and impose rhetorical restraint regarding each other.

But what Carter actually criticized at the service was the government’s secret wiretapping of Dr. King for political reasons. Now-departed Democratic presidents permitted that. Bush insists he’s only wiretapping domestic phones engaged by international callers suspected of terrorism, and doing so under his authority because we’re at war.

If that’s the case, then George W.’s presidential predecessor wasn’t saying anything having to do with him, and the president’s apologists should stop squealing.


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