In a country cleaved by political differences, paralyzed by a pernicious virus and suffering from a plunging economy, Thursday presented painful contrasts. It was a day of soaring tributes to the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, offered from the pulpit of the mother church of the modern civil rights movement. And it was a day of pointed reminders that the nation is struggling, even after 244 years, to define itself, to decide what freedom and equality will mean.
Ninety-six days before Americans select a path into an unknown and fearsome future, the nation’s last four chief executives presented their visions of a country going through its toughest year in half a century.
Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton put on masks and traveled to Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church to say goodbye to a civil rights leader and Democratic House member who preached change, progress and hope. Donald Trump stayed home, spending the morning watching TV and tweeting, holding fast to his program of conflict, nostalgia and restoration.
Not one of the three former presidents mentioned his absent successor, yet each seemed to have him very much in mind:
“John Lewis always looked outward, not inward,” Bush said.
Clinton said that Lewis “was here on a mission that was bigger than personal ambition.”
And Obama said of Lewis that “he believed in us even when we don’t believe in ourselves.” A few minutes later, to hit that note even harder, Obama said the very same words, one more time.
The former presidents deployed classic rhetoric — quotations from Scripture, powerful silences and sweet allusions to Lewis’s grace and humility — to describe how he earned a respect, and therefore a power, for which others shout in vain.
Trump turned to a classic, too — to his own lifelong quest to put himself at center stage.
In the morning, after his own administration reported discouraging data showing that the economy had tanked in recent months, contracting by a third on an annualized basis because the country had failed to get a handle on the coronavirus, the president scrambled to change the subject. Sixteen minutes after the grim numbers were released, he tweeted for attention — all grievance, all provocation, all CAPS.
“2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he proclaimed with his 13,087th tweet since he became president. “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
A funeral for one of the last of the great leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was no place for campaign speeches, yet Trump and his barely-camouflaged disdain for the protesters who have filled American streets in recent months was a clear subtext for many of the eulogies at Lewis’s memorial service.
Obama, in particular, made the point directly: “Bull Connor may be gone. But today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
Before a socially-distanced congregation of 50 of Lewis’s House colleagues and some of his fellow civil rights pioneers, all masked against the virus, Obama, Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on Americans to honor Lewis’s optimistic courage by “nonviolently insisting on the truth,” as Pelosi put it, and, above all, by voting.
The scene in the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once was pastor was unusually universalist for a country so beset by division. Speakers paid tribute to Democrats and Republicans alike who had fought for civil rights. Obama praised both Bush and his father for signing extensions of the Voting Rights Act and hailed Lewis for sticking to his belief that he and his opponents shared a foundational belief in principles of equality and fairness.
“We must all keep ourselves open to hearing the call of love,” Bush said.
Obama hit the same theme: “In all of us, there’s a longing to do what’s right.” But sometimes, he added, that longing is “taught out of us. We start feeling as if, in fact, we can’t afford to extend kindness and decency to people. And so often, that’s encouraged in our culture.”
He did not single out his successor in the White House, nor did he need to: Trump had been asked days earlier whether he would pay his respects to Lewis by visiting his casket in the Capitol Rotunda.
“No, I won’t be going, no,” the president of the United States said, his lips tight.
Trump has never been big on funerals. He showed up late and stood in the back at the service for one of the most important people in his life, his early mentor and attorney, Roy Cohn. At his own father’s funeral, Trump spoke mainly of himself, listing his real estate projects and noting that Fred Trump had supported each one.
He skipped the Capitol Rotunda honors for Sen. John McCain, the Republican leader and former prisoner of war in Vietnam, a national hero for whom Trump often expressed contempt.
“I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted,” Trump said after that service. “I didn’t get a thank you. That is okay. We sent him on the way, but I wasn’t a fan of John McCain.”
Trump’s speaking style might have seemed out of place at the Lewis funeral. But whether he stayed away because he knew he’d be unwelcome or because he considered Lewis an enemy, Trump’s absence was in character: He has always claimed to relish being on the other side, excluded by the establishment. Oppositional by nature, he was elected to be the great disrupter, and as president, he has often been at odds with his own government.
But although he was not in Atlanta, his deep, almost physical need to be the focus of attention, to lure the camera back to him, meant he was not about to sit quietly at the White House.
Trump’s suggestion that the November election be postponed because of the virus crisis seemed less than full-throated. He ended his tweet with question marks, a move he reserves for moments when he has perhaps gone too far, when his lunge for attention might backfire, or when, as in this case, his proposal might be illegal, on its face unconstitutional.
Trump’s gambit didn’t win the usual plaudits. His dependable allies in Congress were not jumping off this particular cliff with their president. They could read the room, too.
“Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions, and the Civil War have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), “and we’ll find a way to do that again this November 3.”
As Obama spoke in Atlanta and on every major news channel, the president counterprogrammed by holding an unscheduled meeting in the Oval Office with the family of a soldier who was killed on an Army base in Texas. Spec. Vanessa Guillen’s mother and sisters said Guillen was killed by a fellow soldier who had sexually harassed her. Trump called their story “terrible” and said he would “help” with their funeral expenses.
But Trump remained silent about Lewis, and by day’s end, he was back to tweeting about the election: “We are going to WIN the 2020 election, BIG!”
John Lewis “played the long game,” a member of his congressional staff said at the funeral. He expected people to live up to their ideals. He saw in this spring’s protests a new chance to bend the arc of history.
In a final note he left behind to be published on the day of his funeral, Lewis called on “ordinary people with extraordinary vision” to “redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.” He called the vote “the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society,” and he admonished Americans to “study and learn the lessons of history. . . . The truth does not change.”
Late in the day, Trump appeared at a hastily scheduled coronavirus briefing, where he rejected any move to shut down businesses to curb the virus.
Asked how, in light of covid-19 cases spreading among Major League Baseball players, he could assure parents that it is safe for their children to return to school, the president had only this to say: “Can you assure anyone of anything?”
Trump slammed his predecessors’ “crazy, horrible, disgraceful ” trade deals, complained that the November election would be “rigged” and made kind comments about Cain.
He did not mention Lewis.