Deaths of political leaders

February 5th, 2019

Two funerals

In the second half of 2018, the deaths of two political leaders each took their turn at the center of public discourse. George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, died on November 30. He was preceded in death by 2008 presidential nominee and long-time senator John McCain, who succumbed to a brain tumor on August 25.

Their respective funerals, along with the surrounding media commentary, lionized both men, citing their many accomplishments and their character. Both men served in the military, during World War II and Vietnam respectively, and both had assembled a decades-long record of public service. At the funerals, friends and family members shared their heartfelt stories about the two men, often filled with wit and humor, and choked-back tears from the emotion of the moment.

Bush’s son, George W. Bush, the 43rd president, eulogized his father with tenderness while simultaneously speculating a bit upon his father’s legacy: “When the history books are written, they will say that George H. W. Bush was a great president of the United States, a diplomat of unmatched skill, a commander-in-chief of formidable accomplishment and a gentleman who executed the duties of his office with dignity and honor.”

As the younger Bush continued, he used his father’s own words to share what the elder Bush felt was his legacy and that he hoped to pass on to his children: “a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it.” This was, George W. Bush concluded, exactly what they would remember him for. In other words, his greater legacy was from the core of his character rather than his political accomplishments.

A few months earlier, at McCain’s funeral, a number of his political adversaries from across the aisle shared their thoughts and insights, including former president Barack Obama and former vice president Joe Biden. The image they presented was one of an independent thinker who would work with people outside his party if he thought it best for the nation.

These public funerals were a curious mixture filled with celebrations of life, appreciation for the men’s achievements, and a very personal glimpse into what Abraham Lincoln long ago termed the “better angels of our nature.”

Too soon?

There’s a famous Latin dictum that reads, “De mortuis nil nisi bonum,” which translates, “Speak nothing but good of the dead.” However, truth and honesty about the complex legacies of both the living and the dead would appear to be at odds with this idea. Even as we grieve loss, we often have to confront the aspects of another person’s life that were challenging or even harmful. For the most part, in our personal lives, we avoid doing that at the funeral. We put those things aside, at least for a time. However, when we regard the death of a public figure, it can be considerably more difficult.

In The Guardian, journalist Glenn Greenwald recounted how, in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death, there was a lot of criticism directed at those who commented negatively about her record in any way. He argues, however, that it’s never too soon: “Those who admire the deceased public figure (and their politics) aren’t silent at all. They are aggressively exploiting the emotions generated by the person’s death to create hagiography.”

Hagiography, I discovered when I looked it up, is a word typically used for writings about the lives of the saints. Greenwald’s argument, and the argument of many who agree with him, posits that these very public funerals are not apolitical but instead political theater for those who appreciated the policies and politics of the deceased. With this in mind, he believes there needs to be a counterpoint because when the public conversation centers on a political figure at his or her passing, this creates an opportunity to burnish that person’s credentials at the expense of whitewashing certain actions that may have had a negative impact. In addition, the theatrics can be used to further the purposes of current political actors, and this behavior deserves a rebuttal.

The same dynamic that Greenwald referenced concerning Thatcher was also evident in the days following the deaths of McCain and Bush. Their funerals were a public affirmation of their lives and their careers, and the celebration of their accomplishments was present in an overwhelming majority of news stories. When there was dissent, it was quickly followed by a request for respect.

Truth and love

While final judgment belongs to God, our perceptions of our political leaders can make a difference in how we live our lives. As we process the memories of both those we love and those we abhor, we’re going to come to our own conclusions. With the divisions of politics so central to our society, too often these conclusions come down strictly on party lines. However, we’re reminded that God doesn’t see as we see. In the same way that God discerned David was a man after God’s own heart despite David’s many flaws and failures, God discerns our hearts differently.

Sometimes in situations like these, truth and love are in tension with each other. We have all experienced moments when the revelation of truth hurts. We have all been caught in a lie or been faced with the need to confront someone else’s harmful actions. Likewise, we have all been in situations where we held our tongues and chose not to speak the truth in full because we knew that it would hurt someone. “Speaking the truth with love,” as noted in Ephesians 4:15, enables us not only to do both with grace but also to grow into Christ, who is the head of all things.

Therefore, as we speak about those who have recently died, especially those who have been at the center of controversy, remember that both truth and love are important. Our words will impact both those who honor the political leaders who have passed on and those who disdain them. Not only that, but by speaking the truth with love, we will learn to grow into Christ more each day.

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