President Barack Obama and former president George W. Bush appeared together Tuesday at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas for an interfaith memorial service honoring the five officers who were slain Friday in the city’s downtown.
Both gave eloquent speeches before joining hands with their wives and many local officials in solidarity for the victims.
During his speech, Bush said, “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
Less than an hour later, Twitter users would be passionately judging and defending him, sometimes cruelly, and not for anything he said.
After both Obama and Bush gave speeches in which they encouraged the country to seek more unity, the current and former first couples stood onstage in a line.
Two presidents who couldn't be more different, Bush and Obama, both just gave speeches on unity and tolerance. It would behoove us to listen
— John Haltiwanger (@jchaltiwanger) July 12, 2016
The band launched into the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and the couples moved closer together, grasping each other’s hands. Also in the chain of linked hands were Vice President Joe Biden, Dallas Police Chief David Brown, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and others.
Throughout the nearly five-minute song, most of the chain remained solemn, swaying with the music and at least mouthing the lyrics. Bush, clad in a brighter blue suit than the others, appeared to be a bit more moved by the music and the mood. He swayed to the music, swinging his arms — his wife Laura’s and first lady Michelle Obama’s arms swinging along with them but not necessarily voluntarily. He also briefly smiled, even as the others remained solemn.
His reaction seemed to be in keeping with his speech, in which he said, “We don’t want the unity of grief, nor do we want the unity of fear. We want the unity of hope.”
Reports of Bush’s impassioned swaying, which many called “dancing,” began to circulate Twitter, Instagram and Facebook in videos, gifs and written accounts.
Almost immediately, voices on social media were far from unified — instead, they were sharply divided.
Some considered the impassioned and sometimes awkward swaying to be inappropriate, unpresidential and disrespectful.
More than one user questioned whether Bush had been drinking alcohol. Some accused him of using cocaine. Several people even suggested — lacking any evidence and just after he had given a clear, concise and moving speech — that the former president might be suffering from the beginning stages of dementia.
George Bush laughing and dancing during the Dallas cop memorial while standing next to the Obamas is white privilege on hallucinogens.
— ready 4 december (@onekade) July 13, 2016
— Kelly Byrd (@KelByrd) July 12, 2016
Others, though, found his reaction to be one of solidarity, unity and love.
“Let the man dance!” one user tweeted, continuing, “I’d rather watch Pres. Bush dance than ever have to see Trump again.” Another tweeted, “I thought it was a sweet moment.” A third echoed the sentiment, stating, “don’t like him but thought it was a sweet moment with Michelle Obama.”
— wendy (@wowindc) July 13, 2016
Another simply said, “I liked it.”
(It should be noted that in many Southern states, funerals are not entirely solemn affairs. The most common example takes place in New Orleans. Lines of jazz musicians often form a second line after a funeral procession and play upbeat music while attendees march through the city’s streets, dancing to celebrate the deceased’s life. In cities such as Charleston, S.C., gospel funerals that shift tonally between celebratory music and mournful dirges are not uncommon.)
Perhaps one of Bush’s most surprising defenders was Donna Brazile, the vice chair of voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee, a Democratic political strategist and a prominent TV commentator. Brazile, a black New Orleans native, worked on the Louisiana Recovery Board following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Bush was widely criticized for the federal government’s reaction to the storm. The Washington Post named it the second worst moment of his presidency, and Kanye West infamously took to live television and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
After the Hill compiled a short list of (only) negative social media reactions to Bush’s dancing, Brazile tweeted in defense of the former president.
He was feeling the spirit. Please, allow him to sway on. https://t.co/wIiz7EdNyE
— Donna Brazile (@donnabrazile) July 13, 2016
She wasn’t the only one who overlooked differences with the former president to come to his defense.
Unsurprisingly, many media outlets got in on the debate. Gawker wrote that “George W. Bush … was ready to f—ing party,” while the New Republic called the moment “dopey but endearing” and referred to much of the social media response as “cheap outrage politics.”
In their speeches in Dallas on Tuesday, both Obama and Bush spoke on the importance of unity. Speaking of the recent spate of mass shootings, Obama said, “They will not drive us apart. We can decide to come together.”
If the online reaction to the presidents literally coming together is any indication, those words may have fallen on deaf ears.