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A Tale of Two Men


Watching the funeral service of John Lewis on T.V., I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between the late Congressman and the current resident of the White House, who refused to attend because of he was pandering, as usual, to his racist base.

Wasn’t it wonderful to see President Bush, President Clinton and President Obama in the assembled congregation? George W. Bush is looking increasingly good as the last Republican President before current one. He was a good man, a decent man, and while I may not have agreed with many of his policies, I think history will treat him well. As for Clinton, well, even behind his face mask, he was the tall, dignified man with the great mane of white hair who inspired many of us and whose legacy, I firmly believe, will be greater and greater as the years pass. I always told my Democratic friends, who worried that Clinton was too much of a triangulator, that his achievement lay in keeping the frail, fragile flame of the candle of liberalism alive during a period of christian-conservative ascendancy. Clinton sheltered the flame in his great, protecting hands, preventing the forces of rightwing theocratic regression from blowing it out. That flame might not have exploded into a great roaring fire under Clinton, but it was not extinguished. That, surely, is a worthy accomplishment. As for President Obama, well, when we gaze upon him we see History, manifested in the person of a man. We see, if you will, the hand of God, laid upon a mortal. And we see something as yet unfinished; Barack Obama has many more roads to trod and bridges to cross.

You can be cynical and say that Bush, Clinton and Obama are just politicians, mouthing political platitudes at the funeral of an admired man. This is not so. I suppose we see what we want to see, but what I saw were three admirable, upstanding and moral men, touched by the death of an admirable, upstanding and moral man, and wanting to share their grief with everybody else.

Of great men it has been said that they grow greater after their deaths. What was irrelevant, what doesn’t matter, falls away and is forgotten, while the man’s achievements build in stature in the public mind. There are few men or women in recent American political history of whom this can be said. John F. Kennedy is one, for sure. He actually didn’t get that much done as President (and historians basically agree that he was a fairly mediocre Senator, having not much interest in the job). But it was the manner of his death, and the way he inspired a generation of young people to dedicate themselves to the American cause, that have made JFK an icon for all time. It’s hard to analyze or explain how such a phenomenon occurs. It seems to happen of itself, without the intervention of other men—seems to be pre-ordained by Nature, or History, or Fate. That is the phenomenon of John Lewis. Already, although he’s been dead less than a week, he has soared in reputation. His legend grows. He takes his place in a pantheon of freedom fighters alongside his heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. King. John Lewis encapsulates the goodness and decency of the American people and of humankind.

The eulogies of Bush, Clinton and Obama made me cry. None of them has anything left to prove, in the sense of ambition. They came to the service because they loved John Lewis and wanted to pay him their respects, and also because they wanted to let the American people know that there is still goodness and mercy in our politics, even in this dark, dangerous time. And, while it may not have been their conscious intention, their coming also reminded us of who was not in that Ebenezer Baptist Church. The person who temporarily holds the office of the President. The person whom History will condemn. The person who can’t hold the shoes of Bush, Clinton or Obama. The person who is a shame, an insult and an embarrassment upon the Oval Office, upon America, upon the Bible, upon all human codes of morality. The person whose name does not belong in the same posting as that of John Lewis. John Lewis was goodness incarnate. That other person is evil.

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