Just as they did following the memorial service for Senator Paul Wellstone in 2002, Republican operatives and their acolytes in the media are now claiming that there was something inappropriate about the manner in which those who knew Coretta Scott King best mourned her passing. So great is the determination of the spin doctors for a White House that seeks to protect George Bush from even the mildest expressions of dissent that commentators rushed Tuesday to television studios even before the service for Mrs. King was done to denounce former President Jimmy Carter, the Rev. Joseph Lowery and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin for expressing sentiments not usually heard by this protected president.
But don’t think that anything untoward actually took place in the Atlanta suburb where thousands gathered to celebrate the life, the work and the politics of Mrs. King. The service provided the president with a healthy — if all too rare — dose of reality. Bush’s policies are not popular, particularly with the African-American community, and the president needed a gentle reminder of the fact. Indeed, the president was far more graceful in the receipt of the dissenting messages that were uttered at the service for Mrs. King than were those who rushed to condemn his critics.
What got the Republican spin machine humming Wednesday?
The see no evil, hear no evil, acknowledge no evil crowd was furious that several speakers used their brief portions of the six-hour remembrance service for the widow of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to pointedly echo the anti-war, anti-poverty and anti-racist themes that were so central to Mrs. King’s life and work. The event featured no direct attacks on President Bush, who seated himself prominently on the stage of the vast New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in an Atlanta suburb. Instead, there were the sort of knowing, sometimes serious, sometimes lighthearted, prods that often are heard at memorial services of this kind.
Atlanta Mayor Franklin, whose address followed that of the president, made reference to Mrs. King criticism of “the senselessness of war” and recalled, correctly, that the late civil rights activist’s voice was heard “from the tin-top roofs of Soweto to the bomb shelters of Baghdad.”
That did not sit well with those who believe the president’s precious ears must be protected from the sound of any and all dissents with regard to the quagmire that is Iraq.
Even more unsettling to the critics were the words of the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who worked for decades with the Kings. Of Mrs. King, Lowery recalled, “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.” As the crowd cheered, Lowery boomed: “Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.”
Ultimately, however, it was not Lowery but Carter who took the hardest hits for daring to dissent. Noting the slow and inept response to Hurricane Katrina, Carter pointed out that, “We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi who are most devastated by Katrina to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans.”
For this comment, and for recalling the historical fact that the Kings were victims of “secret government wiretapping and surveillance” — a sore point for a president who is under fire for ordering warrantless wiretaps — Carter was denounced as “shameless” by the New York Post and ridiculed by Republican commentators.
To his credit, Bush seemed to take the criticism is stride, even shaking hands with and embracing Lowery, Carter and other speakers. And that may be the most important point that can be made about this rare moment in which the president heard actual dissent — as opposed to the manufactured applause that usually accompanies his stage-managed public appearances. As someone who covered Bush long before he took office in 2001, I have always believed him to be a more gracious and thoughtful man than his presidency has made him out to be. Bush and his presidency suffer from having been placed in the bubble to which his neoconservative handlers have consigned him. Indeed, despite the ranting and raving of the spin doctors who would have us believe that it was wrong to honor Mrs. King by echoing the dissents she made during her lifetime, both President Bush and the American discourse surely benefitted from a real moment in these surreal times.