Words, much like flowers and casseroles, often prove insufficient whenever someone dies. But unlike the funeral wreath, which inevitably wilts, words last. That comforting fact is multiplied tenfold when those words come from the President of the United States.
Not long after news broke of actor Robin Williams death from an apparent suicide on Monday, President Barack Obama issued an official statement calling the Oscar-winner “one of a kind.” The commander-in-chief even referenced the comedian’s many film and TV roles– from genie to nanny to Peter Pan–and offered condolences to “everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”
It’s not at all out of character for the West Wing to publicly pay tribute to someone outside of the political scene. In the five years since entering the White House, Obama has expressed his sadness over the deaths of at least 13 entertainers, writers and performers.
Among those stars the president has chosen to eulogize are gospel singer Albertina Walker, entertainer Lena Horne, TV personality Dick Clark, disco legend Donna Summer, actor Andy Griffith, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, film critic Roger Ebert, folk musician Pete Seeger, actor Harold Ramis, writer Gabriel García Márquez, poet Maya Angelou, actress Ruby Dee and Williams.
The responses range from the generic to the personal. In May 2012 the White House dedicated four concise sentences to Summer with “thoughts and prayers” going out “to Donna’s family and her dedicated fans.” When Ruby Dee died in June 2014, the Obamas added a factoid from their own love story to the official tribute. “Michelle and I will never forget seeing her on our first date as Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing,” read the statement.
Some of the choices are obvious. Walker, Bradbury, Ebert, Ramis, and Williams were all born in Illinois, the president’s adopted home state. Seeger, a folk singer, had been dubbed “America’s tuning fork” and Dee was a tireless Civil Rights activist.
But why remember Andy Griffith or Donna Summer and not Ann B. Davis, Bobby Womack, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, or Elizabeth Taylor.
Who decides when a “Statement by the President on the Passing of” is appropriate?
“There’s no hard and fast rule about who gets a statement and who does not,” said Dana Perino, who served as White House press secretary under President George W. Bush from 2007 to 2009 and is now a co-host on Fox News Channel’s “The Five.” The White House had no comment on the process.
The “rules,” according to Perino and other communication experts in Washington, are flexible. Connection to the boss, the public, and to certain policy issues all weigh equally on the decision of whether or not to release a statement on a celebrity’s death. “Natural opportunities” for comment always trump “opportunistic” ones, said one media strategist.
Perino recalled that when singer James Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006, President Bush immediately released a statement because Brown was not only “an iconic American figure” but the Bushes loved his music. The loss was personally and publicly felt. In the end, said Perino, the commander in chief usually makes the final decision.
“Sometimes presidents just want to make a statement,” she said, “and guess what? They get the right to.”
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