On the very minute chance I become famous, when I die, please don’t invite my favorite politician to give a campaign speech at my funeral and to disguise it as a eulogy.
I know, chances of this are probably infinitesimal. However, when I die, I’d like to be remembered for the person I was, not what my death can do for someone else.
I also concede my makeup is somewhat different than that of John Lewis, the recently deceased Democratic representative from Georgia and civil rights icon.
He was a politician, after all — and more than just that. I disagreed vehemently with his policy prescriptions, but there was little doubt he was a man who was the vanguard of a movement that stared down violent racist iniquity — and won.
His funeral on Thursday was an opportunity to look back on a life well-lived.
It wasn’t a moment for a former president to call for the elimination of the Senate filibuster because it could theoretically serve Democratic public policy goals in the near future.
It also wasn’t the time for him to call out those who try to enforce the law in the midst of violent protests specifically aimed at destroying property and looting businesses, and compare them to George Wallace and Bull Connor.
That’s what Barack Obama did Thursday in a speech that was only a eulogy in name. As a matter of fact, it was a campaign speech.
And it was proof to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson that the former president is “greasy politician” and “one of the sleaziest and most dishonest figures in the history of American politics.”
Harsh words, yes. Not inaccurate ones.
Watching Thursday, however, you got the impression Obama’s address should have been preceded by the words, “I’m Joe Biden, and I approved this message.” The last eulogy I remember designed to have the kind of political effect Obama’s did began with, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” (That one wasn’t televised, alas.)
What was most galling about the “eulogy?” There were plenty of entrants in the shamelessness sweepstakes. All of them had one thing in common, however: a sickening attempt to tie the brutality of the South during Jim Crow’s dying thrashes to this modern moment.
“Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of black Americans,” Obama said. “George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
Of course, Bull Connor shocks us now because atavistic, bigoted functionaries like him were the norm in the civil rights-era South. George Floyd’s death shocks us because it is the exception, even if it’s an exception many choose to find symbolic of a wider trend.
George Wallace employed state violence to circumvent federal law. Tear gas and batons, meanwhile, are generally deployed against demonstrators breaking the law, and rarely doing so in a “peaceful” manner.
Obama also said new voting rights legislation had to be passed by Congress — in Lewis’ memory, of course — and that “[i]f all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.”
One senses a certain political cupidity in that remark which doesn’t have much to do with securing voting rights legislation.
On his Thursday show, Carlson blasted the speech and the motives behind it — particularly Obama’s tendency to use the Jim Crow South as a touchstone.
“Barack Obama, one of the sleaziest and most dishonest figures in the history of American politics, used George Floyd’s death at a funeral to attack the police,” Carlson said before playing Obama’s remarks.
Tucker Carlson: “Barack Obama one of the sleaziest and most dishonest figures in the history of American politics use of George Floyd’s death at a funeral to attack the police.” pic.twitter.com/UXNI84GSKP
— nikki mccann ramírez (@NikkiMcR) July 31, 2020
“Bull Connor?” he said. “The country falling apart, riven by racial strife and tribalism, and one of the most respected people in the whole country decides to pour gasoline on that and compare the police to Bull Connor? As if America or Minneapolis is like Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963? It’s insane. It’s reckless.”
“Of course, Obama doesn’t care. It’s only about November and the coming election,” Carlson said.
“Imagine if some greasy politician showed up at your loved one’s funeral and started throwing around stupid partisan talking points about Senate procedure. Can you imagine that?” Carlson said.
And he called out the scene for what it was: “Obama gave a divisive and deeply dishonest campaign speech, in church.”
And not just any church. This was Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — a church where the co-pastors were, at one point, Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr.
The church undoubtedly has a political history, but there’s something grotesquely unseemly about using the pulpit at a hallowed place of worship and landmark in the civil rights movement, during the funeral of one of the last of the civil rights movement’s giants, for a stump speech with a dead body as a soapbox.
John Lewis was a politician — and one who would have doubtlessly approved of the policies Barack Obama was pushing for on Thursday.
Maybe I’m reading Lewis wrong, but he was a man with an understanding of dignity and decorum, of time and place.
I didn’t know the man personally, but I’ve certainly seen interviews with him. I get the feeling his wishes, when it came to politicized eulogies, were likely closer to mine.
If a corpse could blush, Lewis’ may well have.
This was a man whose memory was done a profound disservice by a speech designed to vitiate the occasion and divide the electorate.
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