Four Presidents and a Funeral

Listen, I watched the funeral of Coretta Scott King for six hours Tuesday, from the pre-service commentary to the very last speech, and it was wonderful—spirited and moving, rousing and respectful, pugnacious and loving. The old lions of the great American civil rights movement of the 20th century were there, and standing tall. The old lionesses, too. There was preaching and speechifying and at the end I thought: This is how democracy ought to be, ought to look every day—full of the joy of argument, and marked by the moral certainty that here you can say what you think.

There was nothing prissy, nothing sissy about it. A former president, a softly gray-haired and chronically dyspeptic gentleman who seems to have judged the world to be just barely deserving of his presence, pointedly insulted a sitting president who was, in fact, sitting right behind him. The Clintons unveiled their 2008 campaign. A rhyming preacher, one of the old lions, a man of warmth and stature, freely used the occasion to verbally bop the sitting president on the head.

So what? This was the authentic sound of a vibrant democracy doing its thing. It was the exact opposite of the frightened and prissy attitude that if you draw a picture I don’t like, I’ll have to kill you.

It was: We do free speech here.

That funeral honored us, and the world could learn a lot from watching it. The U.S. government should send all six hours of it throughout the World Wide Web and to every country on earth, because it said more about who we are than any number of decorous U.N. speeches and formal diplomatic declarations.

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A moment for a distinction that must be made. Some have compared Mrs. King’s funeral to the Paul Wellstone memorial. It was not like the Wellstone memorial, and you’d have to be as dim and false as Al Franken to say it was. The Wellstone memorial was marked not by joy but anger. It was at moments sour, even dark. There was famous booing.

The King funeral was nothing like this. It was gracious, full of applause and cheers and amens. It was loving even when it was political. It had spirit, not rage. That’s part of why it was beautiful.

It was also beautiful because, as the first speaker, Bishop Eddie L. Long, senior pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., said in almost his first words, “This is a worship. This is a celebration. This is a moment that we give to honor God.”

It was a religious service in which no one was afraid to talk about God. “Praise the Lord,” and “Lord, we lift your name on high” and “How we love to sing your praises” rang through the room. Scripture was quoted, stories told. Blacks in America are not afraid to love Jesus the way they want to love him, to use the language and symbols they want to use. I want to kiss their hands for this. I also happen to honor the fact that, by and large, older blacks at least have not given way to 20th-century stoicism in their style of mourning. The Kennedys, who had too much experience with funerals, set the stoic style 40 years ago, and while it was elegant and moving in its own way, it left an entire nation thinking it was in rather poor taste to cry aloud and sob.

Coretta Scott KingAs for the speakers, no one has ever been or could be better than the Rev. Bernice King, who spoke of her mother’s love, her mother’s end, and the possible metaphorical meaning of the cancer that killed her.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery gave a beautiful poem about Martin being with Rosa in heaven and then finding out that Coretta was coming, and rushing to greet her at the pearly gates. Strike you as corny? Not me. It was beautiful because it was not only full of unselfconscious faith, it assumed unselfconscious faith on the part of the audience, and so was both an implicit compliment and a declaration of shared assumptions. The audience responded with amens and cheers. When he bopped the president over weapons of mass destruction, what seemed, on CNN, to be half the room stood and applauded.

When George Bush 41 followed him to the podium, he teased Mr. Lowery in a way that complimented his eloquence. People sometimes marvel at the grace of George H.W. Bush. He is a warm and gracious man, and he’s old enough to appreciate the humor in everything. He’s old enough to appreciate life. But it is also true that when you attack him or his son from the left he doesn’t get mad because in his heart he kinda thinks you’re right. Attack him from the right; you won’t be overwhelmed by his bonhomie then.

President Bush was fine, his eloquence of the formal kind. He needs to find the place between High Rhetoric and off-the-cuff plainspeak. He always does one or the other. But there’s a place in between, a place that’s not fancy and not common, that would serve him well if he could find it.

Bill Clinton was, as always, the master. Say what you will, he is the only politician in America with the confidence to call Episcopalians “the frozen chosen” and know everyone will laugh and take no offense. Amid all the happy bombast he was the one who pointed at the casket and said, “There’s a woman in there.” He talked about Mrs. King in good strong plain terms. Yes, he caused a quarter-second of awkwardness when he said of the beautiful Coretta that even at age 75 she still had the goods, but in moments of exuberance we all forget our own history.

The real news was how the Clintons used the funeral to unveil how they will run in 2008: Together, side by side, with beautiful hairdos. I haven’t seen them like this—both standing at the podium—since 1992, when they were new. In the years since, after the health-care failure and the Whitewater scandals, the West Wing attitude toward the president’s wife was a quiet and respectful “Get that woman off the podium!” Not anymore. All is new again. Mrs. Clinton has clearly been working on her public speaking, and attempted to use her hands as her husband uses his, now in an emphasizing arc, now resting on her chest. But his are large, long and elegant, and hers are puffed and grasping.

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Both Clintons spoke in the cadence and with the imagery of the Bible. Mrs. Clinton’s first words, in which she referred to Mrs. King’s brave decision to continue her husband’s work after his murder, were steeped in religiosity. “As we are called, each of us must decide whether to answer that call by saying, ‘Send me.’” She ended with, “The work of peace never ends. So we bid her earthly presence farewell. We wish her Godspeed on her homecoming. And we ask ourselves, ‘Will we say, when the call comes, “Send me”?’”

Oh I think we will, Ms. Meanieface!

If you don’t understand that Mrs. Clinton was rehearsing her 2008 announcement speech, then you are a child and must go home and have a nice cup of cocoa.

This is what is coming: I have had a blessed life. And like so many people I could choose, after all these years, a life of comfort. Watch it from the sidelines, tend to my own concerns, watch the garden grow. But our nation calls out. And if we are to be Americans we must meet the call. “Send me.”

With Bill nodding beside her, his hands clasped prayerfully in front of him, nodding and working that jaw muscle he works when he wants you to notice, for just a second, how hard it is sometimes for him to contain his admiration.

God I love them.

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Apart from its beauty, dignity and fight, Mrs. King’s funeral got me thinking about this: Did she know how much she was loved? It’s hard for a person to know that. If only she could have gone to her own funeral, she would have known. I wonder if it wouldn’t be good if somewhere along the way, just once in your life, you got to call your own funeral. Pick the church, the speakers, the music, sit in the pew, clap when they talk about how wonderful you were. Then afterwards have a long lunch and toast your memory. Then the next day you go to work as usual, but maybe in a different mood. I don’t see why we don’t do this. Is this a stupid thing to say? It’s allowed. I’ve got free speech.