The Captive President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, February 8, 2006; 1:18 PM

President Bush almost never hears criticism to his face. Certainly not in public.

But yesterday, at the widely-watched funeral of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King, a fidgety president had no choice but to sit quietly and listen as several speakers reproached him for not having learned the lessons that King and her martyred husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., spent their lives teaching.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King's husband, opened his eulogy with this question: "How marvelous presidents and governors come to mourn and praise, but in the morning, will words become deeds that meet needs?"

Then he read a poem about King: "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 there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew and we knew that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more but no more for the poor."

Former President Jimmy Carter, who has emerged as one of Bush's harshest scolds, called attention to the "secret government wiretapping" of Rev. King, in what the cheering audience recognized as a reference to the current domestic spying controversy.

Carter added: "The struggle for equal rights is not over. We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, those who are most devastated by Katrina to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans."

Bush and his aides are known for going to great lengths to avoid such public confrontations.

Bush has broken with presidential tradition by boycotting the annual NAACP convention. After his administration came under fire for its bungling response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush reached out to black leaders -- but only in closed-door meetings cloaked in secrecy. (See my December 9 and December 22 columns.)

And while Bush trumpets his new-found closeness with former President Bill Clinton, who never criticizes him to his face, he has until now scrupulously avoided giving Carter any opportunity to lecture him about morality.

So it was truly an unprecedented moment for the president.

But was it appropriate to take advantage of Bush's attempt to reach out to the African-American community to publicly berate him? Bush, after all, changed his schedule to attend and deliver his own gracious, if bland, tribute .

"I've come today to offer the sympathy of our entire nation at the passing of a woman who worked to make our nation whole," Bush said, before sitting down and getting his ears boxed.

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