One will have to pardon my malicious feeling, but I have never experienced Schadenfreude so completely as when George W. Bush was ridiculed at the funeral of Coretta King. All of the assembled black dignitaries vented spleen on this president, who, according to a syndicated Republican columnist and self-described friend of the King family, Matt Towery, “won my sympathy and respect for gallantly enduring the slings and arrows pointed directly at him.” Because of all of those rude remarks, “what should have been the celebration of a great woman…turned into a political rally.”
But what exactly was Bush expecting to see and hear when he walked into a black Democratic hornets’ nest? Partisan politicians are expected to hang out with their own, instead of fawning abjectly on their self-declared enemies. Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy would in all probability not act like dishrags, in relation to Bush, if either or both were invited to the funeral of Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. And if these liberal Democrats were forced to attend such a function, they would not prepare for the event the way Bush did in his State of the Union speech, by glorifying the ideology of what in the conventional view is the leftist side. In his address before Congress, Bush assured us that the saintly Coretta was now in heaven with her already deified husband. To make his point even clearer, Bush also invoked the crusading spirit of King as well as that of Lincoln for justifying our present all-out efforts to bring democracy to Iraq.
Self-styled Republican strategists explain that Bush had no choice. How would the media have reacted if the Republican chief executive had not shown proper final respect to the wife of our celebrated civil rights leader? Would the anti-Republican national press have allowed Bush to forget his act of insensitivity? More likely they would have hammered him even harder than they did when Bush failed to attend an NAACP conference, at which black Democrats had gathered to bash him. Like W’s celebration of the new holy family in his State of the Union, this journey to Atlanta for Coretta King’s funeral was necessary to avoid the even greater harm that the president might have suffered if he had failed to come.
But these are excuses rather than a justification for more Republican bootlicking of the Left. Bush is not running for president (thank God!) in 2008, and he is therefore not required to canvas the left wing of the Democratic Party for votes that would not go to him in any case. The worst that could have happened if he had not been at the funeral, and even if he had kept the hagiography out of his speech, would have been that black leaders would have called him names. Such attacks against him are taking place anyhow and are happily cited by the Democratic media as proof that Bush doesn’t care about minorities. Despite the social programs, affirmative recruitment (Bush’s term for Republican affirmative action), and other features of Republican as well as of Democratic administrations that Bush has diligently promoted, there seems no way to convince the overwhelming majority of black voters that Republicans are not racists. The obvious fact that Republican politicians behave in ways that are mostly indistinguishable from those of the Democrats does not change this impression. Nor was Bush’s presence at Coretta King’s funeral likely to alter the received black wisdom.
The president might have spent his time more usefully by appealing to a greater proportion of Southern WASPs, perhaps by saying something nice about “Generals’ Day” or about Robert E. Lee’s gallantry. For every neocon his party might have thereby lost, it would have found a replacement, by attracting disgruntled Old Boys who had been sitting out recent elections. I’m not sure that voters in the hypothetical center or among the non-aligned would have been turned against Bush or his party because he did not attend the funeral. The news about Bush’s insensitivity would have been over in a few days. Moreover, he might have told the public plainly that Coretta King’s followers were zealous Democrats who were ready to clobber him.
I should note that one of the speakers at the funeral, former president Jimmy Carter, made a telling point, for which FOX has been attacking him ever since. Carter observed that the surveillance powers of the Bush administration resemble the powers exercised by J. Edgar Hoover, when he wiretapped the husband of Coretta King. Surveillance power may lead to abuses, Carter maintained, as happened in this case in the 1960s. The comparison caused so much anger to well up in FOX commentator John Gibson, that on February 7 he seemed about to suffer a stroke. Gibson was outraged that Carter would compare “what was done to this great civil rights leader” to President Bush’s efforts to deal with “terror.”
But in the early sixties, when wiretaps were placed on King, the perceptions were quite different. Embroiled in a struggle against the Soviet Union, the American government was understandably concerned about a civil rights radical surrounded by Communist advisors. King was then anything but a beloved secular saint, and he rattled the Kennedy family, which ordered wiretaps to put on him, as deeply as conservative Republicans. Gibson’s counterparts in the sixties vented as much rage on King as Gibson does on the objects of Bush’s surveillance. What was then inconceivable was that Human Events and Heritage Foundation would eventually be glorifying King as a brilliant Christian theologian and as the inexhaustible inspiration for conservative values. And this transformation occurred, as a journey through conservative publications will indicate, in less than twenty years. In view of this remarkable sea change, it seems altogether possible that somebody now subject to government wiretapping may soon show up as a conservative movement hero. But we may first have to wait for the liberal media to undertake the necessary beatification proceedings.