When Funerals Become Politics

Using funerals for political purposes has a long, but not distinguished, tradition. In 44 B.C. eulogist Mark Antony claimed to Roman mourners that he came to bury Caesar. But his speech created a frenzy and ended up ensuring a death warrant for the once “honorable” Brutus.

In contrast, aside from the commemoration of the deceased, Americans mostly have seen funerals as solemn reminders of how frail and transitory life is for all of us, and how our shared fates should unite even the bitterest of enemies.

Sixteen years ago, on the eve of the 2002 midterm election, and at a time when the United States was beginning to divide over the Afghanistan intervention and a looming Iraq war, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) tragically died in a plane crash.

Wellstone’s Minnesota funeral was meant to be a commemoration of a life of public servant well lived. But the funeral service was soon hijacked by partisan speakers and ended up a loud and often grating political pep rally.

The message to mourners of all beliefs and persuasions was to translate their grief into votes for progressive candidates like Wellstone. Popular discontent over news of the politicalized funeral may well have explained why, two weeks later, the in-power Republicans actually picked up seats in George W. Bush’s first midterm election.

At the recent eight-hour, televised funeral of iconic singer Aretha Franklin, many of the speakers such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson turned the event into a political wake—calling for everything from increased voter registration to tighter standards on drinking water.

Activist and professor Michael Eric Dyson embarrassed himself with adolescent hits against President Donald Trump: “You lugubrious leach, you dopey doppelganger of deceit and deviance, you lethal liar, you dimwitted dictator, you foolish fascist.”

On the next day, the televised state funeral for Sen. John McCain likewise soon became just as political.

McCain and President Trump were hardly friends. During the 2016 election, Trump had in crude fashion impugned McCain’s stellar military service, which included a horrific five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in a dank North Vietnamese prison.

For his part, McCain had earlier cruelly called Trump supporters “crazies.” Later he helped to bring the largely discredited anti-Trump Fusion GPS dossier to the attention of federal authorities. And he flipped on Obamacare to cast the deciding vote that defeated Trump’s effort to repeal and replace it.

That McCain-Trump discord soon became thematic in the funeral eulogies.

In not-so-veiled allusions, daughter Meghan McCain received loud applause for blasting Trump, as if she had delivered a partisan campaign speech:

“We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.”

Former President Barack Obama used his time similarly to reference Trump, with similar not so subtle attacks, “Much of our politics can seem small and mean and petty. Trafficking in bombast and insult, phony controversies and manufactured outrage.”

Likewise, former President George W. Bush, no friend of Trump, took a swipe as well. He contrasted McCain with Trump’s policies on illegal immigration and the summit with Vladimir Putin, “He (McCain) respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators.”

Once a funeral is turned into politics, then politics takes on a life of its own. Meghan McCain, Obama, and Bush were apparently all unaware of the paradox of calling for greater tolerance and civility while using a funeral occasion to score political uncivil points against a sitting president.

Once solemnity is sacrificed, it becomes legitimate to remember that Bush himself once infamously looked into the eyes of Putin and said he saw a soul “straightforward” and “trustworthy”—a characterization mocked by John McCain.

Obama had waged an often brutal 2008 campaign against McCain that saw low insinuations leveled at McCain as too old and at times near senile. Bush was accused by McCain in 2000 of running a dirty primary battle.

Why are funerals of celebrities and politicians turning into extended and televised political rallies?

Partly, the volatile Donald Trump and his frantic political and media critics are locked in a crude, no-holds-barred war against each other—waged everywhere nonstop.

Partly, everything in America has become politicized. There is no escape from partisanship—not in movies, sitcoms, comic books, late-night TV, professional sports, social media, the Internet and 24/7 cable news. Not even the dead escape it.

Now the funerals of notables apparently will be televised, scripted, and offer good ratings for political score-settling. Nothing is left sacrosanct.

Politicizing funerals will not end well.


Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump and the recently released The Dying Citizen, and the forthcoming The End of Everything (May 7, 2024)..

Photo: WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 1: (L-R) Former U.S. President George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Lynne Cheney, and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore attend the funeral service for U.S. Sen. John McCain at the National Cathedral on September 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. The late senator died August 25 at the age of 81 after a long battle with brain cancer. McCain will be buried at his final resting place at the U.S. Naval Academy. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)