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Why Bush and Obama’s eulogies of John McCain were historic

Former president Barack Obama spoke about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at his funeral on Sept. 1. (Video: The Washington Post)
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In Washington, high-profile funerals often fall to vice presidents.

“You die, I’ll fly” was how George H.W. Bush summed up the frequent funeral part of his portfolio when he was Ronald Reagan’s No. 2 in the 1980s. (Bush attributed the quip to Secretary of State James A. Baker.)

But sometimes, the passing of an august figure requires words from the highest political voice in the country, a sitting or former president.

President Trump did not attend Saturday’s memorial service for the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) at Washington National Cathedral. Nor has Trump spoken at a funeral since moving into the White House, according to Gerhard Peters, a political-science professor and a keeper of the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a comprehensive database of presidential speeches, briefings, fireside chats, toasts and other public utterances dating to the Hoover administration.

McCain, however, was eulogized by two former occupants of the Oval Office: Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

The pair remembered McCain as a man of ideals and convictions — a man “who had been to hell and back” and still kept his optimism.

“He made us better presidents — just as he made the Senate better,” Obama said in his eulogy. “Just as he made the country better.”

While mostly solemn, the two former presidents pulled a few jokes.

“I have a reputation for keeping cool. John, not so much,” Obama said, with an echo of laughs from the cathedral.

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The appearance of two presidents at the invitation of a man both defeated for the highest office was historic. Something similar happened in 2004 when both Bush and his father, former president George H.W. Bush, spoke at Ronald Reagan’s funeral.

The modern era of funeral addresses by presidents started with Lyndon Johnson’s remarks at a memorial for American poet Carl Sandburg in 1967.

“He is part of the American earth,” Johnson said at the service in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

There may have been no pre-modern era. Before Johnson, the public record shows no presidential eulogy going back to the time White House records became public documents in 1929.

“Before that, presidential papers were private property,” Peters said. “But it’s clear that it just wasn’t common for presidents to deliver eulogies at funerals.”

Johnson spoke at the one funeral as president, but the pace began to pick up after him.

President Richard M. Nixon went to the Capitol to praise his former boss, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, at his memorial in 1969. (“He was puzzled by the hatreds he had seen in our times.”) Nixon would speak at three more funerals: Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), civil right activist Whitney Young and longtime FBI czar J. Edgar Hoover. (“He was the peace officer without peer.”)

President Jimmy Carter traveled to Minnesota to eulogize Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), to Arlington National Cemetery for a memorial for servicemen killed in Iran and to a black D.C. church to honor labor leader and civil rights icon A. Philip Randolph. (“He was a man of dignity; he was a man of tenacity; he was a man of eloquence; and he was a man of gentleness and of constant idealism.”)

Reagan also spoke at three memorial services, perhaps most notably the emotional commemoration for the crew of the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger at Houston’s Johnson Space Center in 1986. In giving solace not just to the families of the killed astronauts but also to a shaken nation, Reagan pioneered the concept of the president as “comforter in chief.”

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He remembered them each by name and nature: “We remember Christa McAuliffe, who captured the imagination of the entire nation, inspiring us with her pluck, her restless spirit of discovery; a teacher, not just to her students but to an entire people.”

And he honored them together as exemplars of our ongoing national endeavor: “We learned again that this America, which Abraham Lincoln called the last best hope of man on Earth, was built on heroism and noble sacrifice.”

In all, the presidential files list 55 funereal addresses by American chief executives, mostly thanks to one loquacious commander in chief. Almost half of the oratories came from President Bill Clinton, who went on a two-term coffin fit by speaking at 26 funerals between 1994 and 2001.

Clinton delivered eulogies for members of Congress (William Fulbright, Les Aspin, Barbara Jordan, among others), for Justice William Brennan, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, civil rights activists, old campaign compatriots and boyhood friends.

Bill Clinton declared himself an Aretha Franklin "groupie" during his speech at her funeral in Detroit. (Video: Reuters)

On Friday, the former president spoke at Aretha Franklin’s funeral at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, extolling the Queen of Soul as “the voice of a generation, maybe the voice of the century.” Clinton also described her as someone who “cared about broken people … She cared about people who didn’t succeed as much as she did.”

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Presidents George W. Bush and Obama were not the furious funerealizer Clinton was, but both came with plenty of practice to Washington National Cathedral on Saturday for McCain’s memorial.

Bush delivered six eulogies when he was in the White House, including for Coretta Scott King, former president Gerald Ford and his former press secretary, Tony Snow. (His father, George H.W. Bush, seems to have delivered none while he was commander in chief, making him and Gerald Ford the only presidents since Johnson to stay out of this niche of speechmaking.)

The younger Bush, like Reagan, spoke at the memorial for a lost shuttle crew after the Columbia was destroyed after reentering Earth’s atmosphere. Then he did the same for Reagan himself: “When the sun sets tonight off the coast of California, and we lay to rest our 40th president, a great American story will close.”

Obama spoke at a dozen funerals, starting with those for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and newsman Walter Cronkite, just more than a week apart in 2009. The string of Senate giants continued with Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). Obama traveled to South Africa at the passing of its former president Nelson Mandela, to Jerusalem to honor former Israeli president Shimon Peres.

In 2015, it was personal for the White House when Obama went to Wilmington, Del., for the funeral of Beau Biden, the son of Vice President Joe Biden, who died at 46 of cancer.

“You know, anyone can make a name for themselves in this reality TV age, especially in today’s politics,” Obama said. “If you’re loud enough or controversial enough, you can get some attention. But to make that name mean something, to have it associated with dignity and integrity, that is rare.”

Former president George W. Bush delivered remarks about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at his funeral on Sept. 1. (Video: The Washington Post)

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