Journalists pick sides in Bush funeral coverage

December 7, 2018
Donald J. Trump, Melania Trump, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Carter at the funeral service of George W. Bush. (Photo by Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images)

The solemn services for George Herbert Walker Bush at the National Cathedral on Wednesday were as sincere as the long faces in line earlier at the Capitol. The tributes to the 41st president came from the heart from just about every segment of society: politicians—past and present, domestic and foreign—historians, the clergy, educators and many, many ordinary citizens. And journalists. He was deemed decent, honorable, humane, moderate, fair; in a word, almost a saint by many.

Heaping praise on Bush was a host of well-known personalities, ranging from historians Doris Kerns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, and Jon Meacham to ex-colleagues in and out of government, along with family members, of course. Four ex-presidents and their spouses, along with President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, sat in the front row at the service at the cathedral. Speakers included Brian Mulroney, former prime minister of Canada; in the audience were British Prince Charles, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the former Polish leader Lech Walesa.

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This mish-mash led to some unexpected friendships. The liberal writer Bryan Behar was excoriated by many of his fans for praising the late president. Coming to his defense was Frank Bruni, New York Times columnist, who said Americans “seem to be getting worse at complexity. At nuance. At allowing for the degree to which virtue and vice commingle in most people, including our leaders.”  

Major media outlets—some of them, at least—did remind readers and listeners that Bush was not perfect. A few devoted scant lines to a few faults that others called out a bit more loudly and boldly. Still others engaged in debates over whether it’s kosher for liberals to confer any praise at all on Daddy Bush, as Bruni stated. Presumably, such jousting is to be expected, thus never-ending.     

However, as real as such outpouring may be, it did not capture the depth of the public response to the death of the Bush family patrician. Some different, harsh opinions were missed in or omitted from the formal eulogies and obituaries. There was debate about whether this moment of sorrow was the time to deal with the negatives of the man.

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But on the other side of the issue, Richard Prince, in his Journal-isms column, decried all the “fawning over Bush.” The Nation Magazine’s Steven W. Thrasher said: “It’s a disgrace to celebrate George Herbert Walker Bush on World AIDs Day.” Mehdi Hasan, of The Intercept, objected to ignoring Bush’s “war crimes, racism and obstruction of justice.” Sara Baboltz, of HuffPost, noted that the Bush “White House once ordered a drug buy from a teenager for a presidential TV stunt.” And former Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson discussed the Clarence Thomas flap on NPR All Things Considered over the weekend.

Renee Graham, columnist with the Boston Globe, charged that, “Like Nixon and Reagan, Bush fostered the racist Southern Strategy. You can draw a straight line from his Willie Horton campaign ads to Donald Trump’s unvarnished vilification of immigrants of color.”

Graham is referring to a time of historic change in American politics that began in the late 1940s. The Democratic Party had long been dominated by white Southern politicians who kept that wing of the party lily-white until a group or northerners steered it from its Jim Crow policies. Most white Southerners, led by Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, formed the Dixicrat Party, which largely failed. However, thanks to Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the GOP began courting the disaffected white Southerners when he ran for president in 1964. That courtship became full-fledged matrimony with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1968, which appealed directly to whites, resulting in the GOP’s stranglehold on the South today.

During the services for Bush, the media took note of the deep divisions at the Cathedral from the seating arrangement—the Trumps on the aisle of the first row next to the Obamas, separated from the Clintons and the Carters. Even the greetings and salutations exemplified the high drama of the moment and of the times: President Trump shaking hands with the Obamas but ignoring and being ignored by the Clintons, even as Bill Clinton seemed to begin to extend his hands for a shake, but withdrawing it as Trump turned to take his seat.

The media noted the extreme tension on the front row. In a headline, The Washington Post said, “Bush funeral: Trump sits with fellow presidents but still stands alone” and observed that “the tension was still blindingly obvious.” Post columnist Dana Milbank was more blunt: “Bush was everything the current president isn’t,” the headline read in print. But what they didn’t catch was the racial division.

In his column, Richard Prince relayed the feeling of many blacks, who remain overwhelmingly anti-Bush. A few could be spotted at the Cathedral and in the lines at the Capitol and in Houston. In a photo feature in Wednesday’s newspaper, The New York Times included several non-white people. But overall, African Americans were never in the Bush camp. However, like many white Americans, they did not hold strong feelings against the Bush family as they did against, say, Ronald Reagan, and currently against President Trump. The record of the Reagan-Bush Administration on naming black officials was atrocious compared to even that of the Nixon Administration, and many African Americans never forgave Bush for appointing Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

As Bruni concludes, “allowing for the degree to which virtue and vice commingle in most people, including our leaders, and understanding that it’s not a sign of softness to summon some respect for someone with a contrary viewpoint and a history of mistakes. . . . might be a path back to a better place.”

That “better place” might have been on the mind of many African Americans. Lauren Victoria Burke, a writer for BlackPressUSA, noted that while many black tributes praised Bush’s military service, “Others focused on the simple fact that, compared to the unprecedented behavior of the current occupant of the White House, Bush represented a more respectful political time.”

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Paul Delaney is an award-winning reporter, editor, and journalism educator. He worked for 23 years at The New York Times, and was a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists.