A Funeral for America’s Conscience

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For such a tough bunch of guys, American conservatives sure do bruise easily. So too, their minions in the mainstream media, many of whom made a great show of their hurt feelings at the sight of Coretta Scott King’s funeral last week.

For a woman whose life revolved around some of America’s most significant historical debates — from war and peace to poverty and race relations — it’s hardly a shocker that her funeral might give voice to some of the most important debates our nation wrestled with during the 20th century concerning peace, war, poverty and race relations, it’s only fitting that her funeral include political statements in line with her and her husband’s work and the issues that inspired it. But to the likes of Howard Kurtz, double-dipper at the Washington Post and CNN where he reports on each one, “Much of the MSM missed the boat [in their coverage of the funeral]. Too many wrote predictable leads about the Coretta Scott King funeral, all but ignoring, or at least burying, the Bush-bashing that was going on.” In fact, Kurtz was reporting on some other alternative universe. Almost every news report mentioned these aspects of the funeral. But if they had, what would be the problem. Does the presence of a live George W. Bush demand disrespect for the dead? The Kings tried to live their lives “in truth.” For Kurtz and his colleagues, however, truth always comes in second when in conflict with deference to George W. Bush.

Take a look at some of the super-sensitive conservative sensibilities upset by what they heard in Atlanta, collected care of Media Matters:

  • National Review Washington editor Kate O’Beirne said, "Liberals don’t seem to be able to keep politics away from funerals." [MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, 2/7/06]
  • Radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed that "the Democratic party now crashes funerals … trying to pick up votes" and said, "I think Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King – if there was to be any anger from above looking down at that – it would be from them." [Fox News’ Your World with Neil Cavuto, 2/8/06]
  • Fox News host Sean Hannity said the comments were "inappropriate" and "designed to stick it to George W. Bush and to embarrass the president." [Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes, 2/7/06]
  • MSNBC host Tucker Carlson described the comments as "rude as hell" and "completely graceless." [MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, 2/7/06]
  • National Review Online editor-at-large and Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg noted Carter’s "mildly ghoulish exploitation of Coretta Scott King’s funeral."
  • MSNBC host Joe Scarborough deemed the remarks "unfortunate" and claimed Democrats "exploit[ed] a funeral to make partisan attacks." [MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, 2/7/06]
  • Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin described Carter and Lowery’s "Bush-bashing sermons" as "absolutely ungodly."
  • Radio host Mike Gallagher called the funeral "one of the most despicable displays of ugly political partisanship that we have ever seen" and claimed that liberals "think a memorial service is an opportunity to eviscerate Republicans and condemn this current administration." [Fox News’ DaySide, 2/8/06]
  • Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes said, "[T]his happens to be Jimmy Carter’s style right now. He is a cheap partisan, very petty man, picking at George Bush." [Fox News’ Special Report with Brit Hume, 2/8/06]

(An exception to the above, we should note in surprise and admiration, came from the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, who pronounced the funeral to be “wonderful.”)

Taken together, Kurtz and his fellow conservative crybabies display a spectacularly short memory. Funerals throughout history have featured some bare-knuckled truth telling as a way to honor the sacrifices of the deceased. Ever heard of Pericles? His famous Funeral Oration, during the Peloponnesian War (as told by Thucydides) is widely considered one of the finest examples of oratory of antiquity. And let’s not forget that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was delivered at the dedication of a cemetery.

What was lost in all of the hand-wringing over people implicitly criticizing a sitting president to his face was more recent historical precedent. No none seemed to recall Elie Wiesel chiding Ronald Reagan about visiting the Nazi graveyard at Bitburg, moments after the president gave him a Congressional Gold Medal, or doing the same to Bill Clinton over his failure to act in Rwanda, or stop the slaughter in Bosnia.

The remarks themselves, which caused so much consternation, weren’t far-left denunciations of the president or his policies, but rather impassioned rebukes from a point of view that has become almost wholly shut out of contemporary American discourse. (See my Nation column, HERE for a discussion of conservative domination of the Sunday morning talk show universe.)

Perhaps, as Matt Drudge reported, First, Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of Southern Christian Leadership Conference, stood up and, “ripped into President Bush.” But see if his remarks didn’t fit in to the spirit of Coretta, and her late husband’s life: "She extended Martin’s message against poverty, racism and war. She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar. We know now that there were no weapons of mass destruction over there…But Coretta knew, and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor!"

Take away the tired play on “weapons of mass destruction,” and explain where he was wrong. As the LA Times wrote the next day, the funeral featured “a succession of civil rights and political leaders assailing White House policies as evidence that the dream of social and racial equality pursued by King and her slain husband was far from reality.”

Later, Jimmy Carter came under fire for merely stating the obvious – much to the displeasure of conservatives, who would rather ignore matters of racial and economic inequality. "The struggle for equal rights is not over,” he said. “We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi," he said, before being drowned out by applause. "Those who were most devastated by [Hurricane] Katrina know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans. It is our responsibility to continue their crusade."

Now, nowhere in the howls of displeasure over Carter’s remarks was it noted that in fact, Bush is trampling on the Kings’ legacy as he pretends to pay tribute to their lives. The president’s new budget proposal, which increases spending for the federal judiciary by $600 million and gives $100 million more to the federal criminal defender program, civil legal services to the poor are being cut by $19 million. What’s more, Dubya wants to cut the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission budget by $4 million. In addition to this, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, cuts proposed in the president’s new budget would slash child care funding for children from low and moderate income families to the tune of $1 billion over the next five years, and “at the proposed funding levels, the number of children receiving child care assistance in 2011 would drop by more than 400,000 as compared to the number who received assistance in 2005.”

Nothing like ignoring uncomfortable realities to make contemporary conservatives comfortable; in fact, given Iraq, Katrina, the deficit, science policy, etc, it’s the only strategy they have left. Thank goodness we have collective moments like the King funeral to help us remember what we can be as a nation. And how sad that so much of the press corps find this “offensive.”

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.




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Eric Alterman

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