Media accused liberals of politicizing King funeral, ignored conservatives' use of Reagan funeral

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Numerous media figures highlighted the alleged "partisan" nature of Coretta Scott King's funeral but failed to comment on the politicization of Ronald Reagan's funeral.

Following civil rights leader Coretta Scott King's February 7 funeral, numerous media figures highlighted the purportedly "partisan" nature of the event, in some cases describing it as a "Democratic pep rally," a "Bush bashathon" and a "Democratic convention." The controversy stems primarily from tributes delivered by civil rights activist Rev. Joseph Lowery and former President Jimmy Carter, which included a reference to prewar intelligence failures in Iraq and what many interpreted as Carter's reference to President Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program. But many of those same media figures accusing speakers of politicizing the King funeral did not show the same aversion to the politicization of the 2004 death of a figure of a different political stripe: former President Ronald Reagan. Nor did they apparently think it worth noting that the Reagan funeral included no Democratic speakers, but a long roster of Republicans, including President Bush, who was running for re-election and was reportedly trying to attach himself to the Reagan legacy.

Held near Atlanta and attended by 15,000 people, King's funeral included speeches from four U.S. presidents -- George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Carter -- as well as numerous civil rights leaders and friends. In his speech, Carter mentioned that King and her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had been the subjects of "secret government wiretapping," which many interpreted as a veiled criticism of Bush's surveillance program:

CARTER: It was difficult for them personally, with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the targets of secret government wiretapping, other surveillance.

Lowery's speech -- like Carter's -- included a passage that provoked controversy (and a prolonged standing ovation):

LOWERY: We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew, and we know, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more, but no more for the poor.

In an interview that evening on MSNBC's The Situation with Tucker Carlson, Lowery responded to the uproar over his comments by explaining that they were intended as a tribute to King and "what she stood for":

LOWERY: My remarks were not about the president, nor about me. They were about Mrs. King and what she stood for and conversations we had had about war and the weapons of mass deception. ... And she was very much opposed to war and talking about her life in the context of civil rights and human rights and the movement.

[...]

I certainly didn't intend for it to be bad manners. I did intend for it to -- to call attention to the fact that Mrs. King spoke truth to power. And here was an opportunity to demonstrate how she spoke truth to power about this war and about all wars.

[...]

So, I'm comfortable with the fact that I was reflecting on Mrs. King's tenacity against war, her determination to witness against war and to speak truth to power.

Indeed, King was a lifelong peace activist whose anti-war views extended most recently to the war in Iraq. In early 2003, she spoke out against the Bush administration's plans to invade Iraq, noting in a Martin Luther King Day speech that her husband had "warned us that war was a poor chisel for carving out a peaceful tomorrow." Later that year, at a rally to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington, she "condemned the war in Iraq," according to an August 24, 2003, Washington Post article.

Nonetheless, in the 24 hours after King's funeral, conservative commentators expressed outrage over Lowery's and Carter's comments, some even going as far as to claim that King herself would have disapproved:

  • 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, 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]
  • Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said, "When I die, I don't want my demise to be used as a political rally, and that's what happened yesterday." [Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, 2/8/06]
  • Wall Street Journal opinionjournal.com editor James Taranto called Carter's comment a "moment of true malice."
  • 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]
  • 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]

These depictions of the funeral as inappropriately political have been further advanced by media figures' framing of the event:

  • MSNBC host Chris Matthews asked, "Was this the Democratic convention or a funeral?" [MSNBC's Hardball, 2/7/06]
  • CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield noted, "I think for a lot of people the idea is, do you really do this at a funeral?" [CNN's American Morning, 2/8/06]
  • CNN anchor Miles O'Brien asked "Do these speakers need to go to eulogy school or something?" [CNN's American Morning, 2/8/06]
  • Fox News host Steve Doocy claimed that the funeral "turned into a 'George Bush bashathon.' " [Fox News' Fox & Friends, 2/8/06]
  • Fox News host Brian Kilmeade said, "Instead of a place of worship, a place of tribute to this woman's incredible life, they're using the pulpit for politics." [Fox News' Fox & Friends, 2/8/06]
  • Fox News host Neil Cavuto said, "I was thinking of President Bush and how he must have felt yesterday at the Coretta Scott King funeral. A lot of people were dumping on him, including a couple of former presidents." [Fox News' Your World, 2/8/06]

Media didn't highlight political elements of Reagan funeral

While the media have devoted substantial coverage to Carter and Lowery's purported politicization of the King funeral, the June 11, 2004, funeral for Reagan did not provoke similar scrutiny, despite clear political overtones. For example, the media largely ignored the fact that no Democrats were invited to speak at either the funeral at the National Cathedral or at a ceremony held on Capitol Hill two days earlier. (President Clinton had even delivered a eulogy at former President Richard Nixon's funeral a decade earlier). According to a June 10, 2004, Washington Post article on the congressional ceremony:

No Democrats were asked to speak at last night's event, although Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said they would have been honored to do so. Republicans said the program was set by the Reagan family, following protocol for such events.

A June 12, 2004, Guardian article further noted that the funeral at the National Cathedral was "exactly as the Reagans had planned it":

The restrained solemnities, the high-powered assembly, was exactly as the Reagans had planned it. The Episcopalian service, which also included readings from Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, unfolded according to instructions drawn up by Reagan and his widow, Nancy, more than 20 years ago.

Soon after Reagan entered the White House, he approached Mr. [then Vice President George H.W.] Bush, to deliver a eulogy, and selected a reading for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who he appointed to the Supreme Court. No Democrats were asked to speak, but accommodation had been made for a serving US president.

The King funeral, by contrast, included speeches by two Republican presidents and two Democratic presidents, as noted above.

Further, during Reagan's funeral, Bush -- then in the midst of his re-election campaign -- took time in his eulogy to note that Reagan "was optimistic about the great promise of economic reform" and that when "he saw evil camped across the horizon, he called that evil by its name":

BUSH: He came to office with great hopes for America. And more than hopes. Like the president he had revered and once saw in person, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan matched an optimistic temperament with bold, persistent action.

President Reagan was optimistic about the great promise of economic reform, and he acted to restore the rewards and spirit of enterprise. He was optimistic that a strong America could advance the peace, and he acted to build the strength that mission required.

He was optimistic that liberty would thrive wherever it was planted, and he acted to defend liberty wherever it was threatened.

And Ronald Reagan believed in the power of truth in the conduct of world affairs. When he saw evil camped across the horizon, he called that evil by its name.

There were no doubters in the prisons and gulags, where dissidents spread the news, tapping to each other in code what the American president had dared to say. There were no doubters in the shipyards and churches and secret labor meetings where brave men and women began to hear the creaking and rumbling of a collapsing empire. And there were no doubters among those who swung hammers at the hated wall that the first and hardest blow had been struck by President Ronald Reagan.

But the media figures who covered the funeral did not call into question the propriety of a Republican presidential candidate celebrating Reagan's economic and foreign policies in this setting. To the contrary, analysts such as CNN's Greenfield -- among those who have highlighted the purported politicization of the King funeral -- commended Bush for allaying suspicions that "he might in some subtle way want to link up to Ronald Reagan's politics or philosophy":

GREENFIELD: And you shouldn't ignore President George W. Bush, who actually chose to talk about the biography of the man more, I think, than the politics. That may have surprised some of us who thought that he might in some subtle way want to link up to Ronald Reagan's politics, or philosophy. The greatest line from Bush, I want to just mention: "His convictions were as strong and straight as the columns of this cathedral." Nice line.

Further, Limbaugh -- who accused the Democrats of "crash[ing] funerals ... to pick up votes" -- used the Reagan funeral to attack Bill and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY). On the day of the National Cathedral event, web gossip Matt Drudge published a frame from C-SPAN's broadcast of the funeral in which the Clintons' eyes were closed, accompanied by the headline "CLINTONS REST EYES DURING REAGAN EULOGY." On his June 11 show, Limbaugh informed his audience that the Clintons had simultaneously fallen asleep during the funeral, as Media Matters for America noted.

Conservatives media figures supported politicization of Reagan's death

The same conservatives outraged over Carter and Lowery's remarks, as well as those media figures who questioned the propriety of the comments at the King funeral, found nothing to criticize in the politicization of Reagan's passing. In the days following Reagan's death on June 5, 2004, it was reported that Republican strategists intended to capitalize on parallels between Reagan and Bush in the hopes of bolstering his re-election campaign. The New York Times noted that Bush aides had claimed that Reagan "was the role model for this president, and ... talked of a campaign in which Mr. Reagan would be at least an inspirational presence." A Los Angeles Times article with the headline "Reagan nostalgia may aid Bush" cited Republican strategists as saying that "the nation's outpouring of nostalgia and respect for Reagan may have offered Bush an opportunity to improve his flagging popularity -- if he can find a way to don the mantle of his well-loved predecessor."

As this strategy began to manifest itself on Bush's campaign website and in attack ads against Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), prominent conservative media figures repeatedly used the coverage of Reagan's death to draw favorable comparisons between Reagan and Bush. For example, on the June 13, 2004, edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol argued that the "Bush doctrine is the son of the Reagan doctrine" and that Reagan, if alive, would vote for Bush:

KRISTOL: Who would Ronald Reagan vote for in this election, if we can be simple-minded about this?

JUAN WILLIAMS (National Public Radio senior correspondent and Fox News contributing political analyst): Who would he vote for?

KRISTOL: George W. Bush. That's who.

WILLIAMS: I don't think he would vote for someone who's involved in nation-building, put Americans at risk under questionable circumstances.

KRISTOL: Reagan would support Bush.

[...]

KRISTOL: The Bush doctrine is the son of the Reagan doctrine.

On the same show, Washington Times White House correspondent Bill Sammon highlighted the similarities between the two presidents and said he didn't "hear anybody comparing Kerry to Reagan":

SAMMON: Also reminds me that, you know, we look at so many similarities with Bush. I don't hear anybody comparing Kerry to Reagan, but I hear a lot of people comparing George W. Bush to Reagan. And you wonder whether 30 or 40 years from now, a lot of the disputes about whether it was a good idea to democratize the Middle East will fall away, and it'll seem obvious that, of course, we should have done so.

And on the June 10, 2004, edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer noted that both Reagan and George W. Bush were "interested in the big ideas":

KRAUTHAMMER: And you know, what's important, I think, is that people understand that he was a large man with large ideas. He slipped a lot of the times. He had his difficulties, but in the end he was vindicated by history, if you get the big ideas right.

And I think there's a lot of application to President Bush, who also is interested in the big ideas in the war on terror, the war in Iraq, changing the economy, all of this.

Not only did conservatives repeatedly draw such parallels, they explicitly endorsed the politicization of Reagan's death. For example, on the June 13 edition of Fox News Sunday, Kristol conceded that "no one wants to politicize the death of a recent president," but said that the Bush campaign nonetheless "should":

KRISTOL: I think [Reagan] could have an impact if the Bush campaign has the nerve to make it have an impact. John Kerry said at the 1988 Democratic convention, speaking on behalf of his fellow Massachusetts liberal Democrat Michael Dukakis ... that the Reagan presidency was a period of "moral darkness". Now ... no one wants to politicize the death of a recent president. But you know what? The Bush campaign should. And they should, in my view, they should go up with an ad next week -- a very respectful ad about President Reagan and say: "We have a disagreement. George W. Bush was a Reaganite. John Kerry thought that the Reagan presidency was a period of 'moral darkness.' "

[...]

KRISTOL: And the president should say, at some point, someone should say this -- the president can't say this -- someone should say at the Republican convention, "Win one more for the Gipper. Win one more for the Gipper."

On the June 9, 2004, edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Malkin and O'Reilly -- both of whom have expressed outrage over comments made at the King funeral -- agreed that Bush should play up his purported similarities with Reagan:

MALKIN: Of course, there's been a lot of sniping by The New York Times and a lot of liberal press that Bush is going to exploit this. They're talking about how Bush's campaign website now has a lot of Reagan quotes on it. Well, what do you expect the Republican president to do? What else do you expect him to do than to honor, you know, this major figure in American history?

O'REILLY: Sure. And I would do it, too, if I were President Bush, as long as it's done in the context of the man, and as long as it's done with dignity. I think Bush is a soul mate ideologically of Ronald Reagan. And why wouldn't he point that out, that Ronald Reagan was a controversial president, but history proved his policies to be correct? I would do the same thing.

Moreover, O'Reilly not only endorsed the politicization of Reagan's death, he used the president's passing to criticize groups with whom he -- O'Reilly -- disagreed. As Media Matters noted, on the June 7, 2004, edition of The O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly claimed that "Reagan would have been appalled" by progressive financier, philanthropist, and political activist George Soros; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

From the February 7 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

HANNITY: When the Reverend Lowery mentioned no weapons of mass destruction, Jimmy Carter brought up surveillance and wiretapping, it was basically designed to stick it to George W. Bush and to embarrass the president, who had taken time out to celebrate the life of Coretta Scott King.

And if you don't see that that's inappropriate, there's nothing I can do to convince you. But the Democrats didn't benefit when they did this at Paul Wellstone's memorial, and you're not going to benefit by politicizing the death of a civil rights leader in the case of Coretta Scott King. And if you don't see that, I think you're missing why the Democrats are failing nationally.

From the February 7 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Well, there you have it, Kate. What do you make of this day? Was this the Democratic convention or a funeral? What was it?

O`BEIRNE: Both were completely inappropriate. Just because politicians are present and they're present as former presidents, they're representing the country. President Bush explained he's there on behalf of all Americans.

It's not a convention or a campaign event, just because former presidents are there. It's a funeral. It's completely inappropriate for both Reverend Lowery to have made the remarks he did, and for former President Jimmy Carter to do what he did, which is a cheap, political shot. Liberals don't seem to be able to keep politics away from funerals.

[..]

O'BEIRNE: Whether or not people who tuned in, owing to this legacy, owing -- in order to on honor this woman who, as Oprah Winfrey said, "left an America far better than the America of her own childhood," if this is what they wanted to be witnessing and having the talking heads talk about, I think they're in for sort of a rude surprise. Jimmy Carter is so graceless. You know, there must be -- maybe he belongs in a minority protected class, a southerner with no graciousness.

From the February 7 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country:

SCARBOROUGH: It reminds me so much of that [Sen. Paul] Wellstone [D-MN] funeral in 2002. Democrats out there maybe saying, Scarborough, you need to get over it. Let the Democrats attack the president. But doesn't that turn off millions and millions of Americans when you exploit a funeral to make partisan attacks?

CARLSON: Well, it's completely graceless. It's also rude as hell, by the way, since the president is sitting right there.

I mean, you know, these are people that -- many of the speakers are people who have pulpits, literally, in some cases, figuratively in all cases, where they can make their case against the president. And they have the right to do it, and I never begrudge them that. But a funeral is not the place to do that.

A funeral is a place to make transcendent points about the nature of life and death and to celebrate the person who has died. It's not the place to talk about the politics of the moment, and to do so, again, in a pretty graceless and heavy-handed way. I think it's a reflection, without drawing too large a point from this, that there are people in America for whom politics is the most important thing. And I think some of them spoke today. I don't think most Americans feel that way.

For the average American, politics is not the most important thing. And so, that's why most Americans don't go on political rants at funerals.

[...]

SCARBOROUGH: The bottom line is, again, I saw Coretta Scott King in speeches with President Bush. I saw her being very graceful. We all knew that she disagreed with George Bush on many issues, but she never behaved the way they behaved today at her funeral. It was unfortunate.

From the February 8 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:

KILMEADE: And all of the sudden they're taking shots at the president of the United States. If you don't agree with the president, what about the sanctity of the office and your own administration? What about some common courtesy and respect?

E.D. HILL (co-host): Well, what about being in a church. When you're at a funeral -- you know [Fox News general assignment reporter] Kelly Wright, who's a minister, he just said -- shocked -- because you're using a pulpit instead of -- you know, a place of worship, a place of tribute to this woman's incredible life -- they're using the pulpit for politics.

[...]

DOOCY: Yesterday the funeral for Coretta Scott King turned into a "George Bush bashathon." Our question for you is "pulpit gor politics?" What this a tribute -- because she was a woman who stood for change and maybe these pointed remarks would get some change -- or do you find it troubling that they would pick this time?

From the February 8 edition of CNN's American Morning:

O'BRIEN: I don't know if you were looking at President Bush there during that. It seemed like he had a bit of a grimace there. Do these speakers need to go to eulogy school or something?

[...]

GREENFIELD: We're now in early February. The idea that this is going to have some political implication, you have to really be overcommitted to endless analysis, which some of us on cable news are to think that. I do, however, think that in a more subtle way, this actually rebounds to the credit of President Bush. I mean, he came to the funeral, changed his plans, made a gracious speech. And I think for people who are not politically committed -- I mean, if you don't like George Bush, this was fine. If you like George Bush, this was horrible. I think for a lot of people the idea is, do you really do this at a funeral?

From the February 8 edition of Fox News' DaySide:

GALLAGHER: I think it was one of the most despicable displays of ugly political partisanship that we have ever seen. Although it is nothing new for Democrats, who did this with Paul Wellstone's funeral as well. They seem to think that a memorial service is an opportunity to eviscerate Republicans and condemn this current administration. It was shocking, it was vile, it was so out of bounds.

From the February 8 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto:

CAVUTO: You know, I was thinking of President Bush and how he must have felt yesterday at that Coretta Scott King funeral. A lot of people were dumping on him, including a couple of former presidents.

LIMBAUGH: I will tell you how he felt, happy. These people are embarrassing themselves. These people, the Democratic Party, that funeral yesterday was -- it had everything -- it had everything in it. It had a Brokeback Mountain moment in it, when Bishop Eddie [Long] embraced Bush, or Bush embraced him, gave him a kiss on the cheek.

Then, you had a bunch of Wellstone memorial moments. I think -- do you remember the movie the Wedding Crashers? Two guys crash weddings to pick up dates. The Democratic Party crashes weddings -- or funerals. They are now the funeral crashers. And they are out there trying to pick up votes. And it's absurd, if they think behavior like that, disrespecting a sitting president while he is there.

[...]

LIMBAUGH: But I will tell you that I think Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr., if there was to be any anger from above looking down at that, it would be from them. That is a sacred event, a funeral to -- to memorialize and honor this woman.

From the February 8 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

BARNES: This was a six-hour funeral service to celebrate the life of Coretta Scott King, and it was mostly that, celebrating that life. But, you know, you had some people who were really cheap partisans, and this happens to be Jimmy Carter's style right now. He is a cheap partisan, very petty man, picking at George Bush.

From the February 8 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

O'REILLY: Using Coretta Scott King's funeral to make political points. That is the subject of this evening's "Talking Points Memo." You know, when I die, I don't want my demise to be used as a political rally, and that's what happened yesterday to Coretta Scott King.

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