Barack Obama is rightfully known as one of the most powerful orators of his generation. He is the only president in modern memory to have ascended to the national spotlight on the power of a single speech, with his eloquent words at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention. His soaring rhetoric then and four years later on the campaign trail sought to bring Americans together. That is why the base and political nature of his eulogy for the late John Lewis is such a disappointment.
The speech began quite well. In fact, most of it was a stirring and fitting tribute to a man who was truly an American hero. He recounted not only Lewis’s bravery in fighting racism in his youth but his political skill in helping to bring about legal and political changes needed to secure the rights of all Americans. Towards the end, however, the former president veered into a rambling litany of radical current political demands that sounded more like a convention speech than a eulogy.
After slamming Republicans for very reasonable fears that an untried nationwide mail-in voting system could be a total mess rife with the opportunity for corruption, Obama acknowledged he was drifting into controversial territory. He said, “I know this is a celebration of John’s life. There are those who might say we shouldn’t dwell on such things. But that’s why I am talking about it.”
Perhaps Lewis would have wanted him to speak of such things. Perhaps the firebrand who made “good trouble” would have applauded the politicization of his own funeral. But eulogies are not for the dead, who cannot hear them, at least not with the ear of the material world. They are for the living. They are meant to celebrate the deceased and help all of us go forward as better people through having known their example.
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This is why the laundry list of Democrat talking points Obama proceeded to launch was so misplaced and such a disgraceful use of time that should have been spent uniting Americans through the memory of one of its great leaders. Instead, Obama made it seem that if anyone should disagree with his preferred policy decisions, that person was not honoring Lewis’s legacy. At times, it became downright ridiculous.
His insistence that all good people must support statehood for Washington, DC and Puerto Rico was downright cynical. It is perfectly clear that such a move would benefit his party in ways that could lead to unshakable one-party rule. But far more cynical were the means he described to achieve this end.
Eulogies don’t typically come with threats of extortion, but that is exactly what Obama took this hallowed time to deliver. He said, “And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that is what we should do.” In other words, should Republicans fail to bend the knee, the rules will be changed to permanently keep them in a political wilderness.
What is laughable is that Obama and the Democrats seem to have no problem using this “Jim Crow relic.” According to Politico, “During Trump’s presidency, McConnell and the Senate GOP have held time-sapping roll call votes to break a filibuster and end debate on nominees a whopping 314 times, according to Senate tallies. All previous presidents combined faced 244 roll call votes to advance nominees over a filibuster.”
Just as the ban on large indoor gatherings did not apply to Democrats holding a funeral, even while millions of Americans must say goodbye to loved ones without this most human of rituals, Democrats use the filibuster willy nilly with nary a care about its supposed racist provenance. As ever, there are two sets of rules. Is that not exactly what Lewis spent his life fighting against?
Obama’s eulogy was an opportunity lost for the country to come together. Instead, it was pure partisan rancor. Obama’s entire post-presidency feels this way. Having left the White House at such a young age, Obama had the opportunity to become a leader for all Americans. Instead, he seems to have settled into the role of a partisan hack. That is a shame.
In America, we can, or at least at one time we could, find the lessons in the lives of great men when our specific politics were different. We could honor those with whom we had the staunchest of disagreements.
Obama denied conservative Americans of all races, religions, and creeds that chance. He turned a moment of civic reflection into a campaign rally. But take heart. Of course all Americans can celebrate the life of the great John Lewis, even if Obama tried to apply a cynical political test to such a celebration. Lewis and his legacy belong to all of us.