A class act

Posted: Feb 09, 2006 12:05 AM

ATLANTA -- In some form or fashion, I have known the players in what I am about to describe as a series of regrettable moments at the funeral of Coretta Scott King.

The one I know least, President George W. Bush, won both my sympathy and respect for gallantly enduring the slings and arrows pointed directly at him during what should have been a celebration of a great woman, but instead turned into a political rally.

The service, held in a metro Atlanta church, attracted dignitaries from around the world. As I watched, I saw four dignified King children, obviously grieving, and listened to the various speakers.

I am fortunate to call Martin Luther King III and Dexter King both friends and business associates. As I've previously written, they and their sisters are credits to their parents.

And while they will never say so, I can't help but believe the King family was dismayed at the crass political battle that was triggered by comments made at their mother's funeral. Trust me, this is a good and decent family.

What ensued at low points during the nearly six hours of the funeral proceedings were what can only be described as a series of insults cloaked in eulogies. Naturally, they were all hurled at President George W. Bush. He, his wife and his father, former president George HW Bush, had to sit directly behind these attackers as they unleashed their barely disguised vitriol.

Sadly, one attack came from a man who I have often had kind words for, much to the dismay of my conservative friends.

Former President Jimmy Carter went beyond the pale of presidential civility with his thinly veiled swipe at President Bush, in which he mentioned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta had been "violated" by "government wiretapping and government surveillance."

Carter knows darn well that the Bush administration is under fire for a wiretapping and surveillance policy designed to more effectively fight the war on terror.

Perhaps Carter should have added that Democratic presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson knew about many of those wiretaps of the Kings, and even authorized some of them.

Instead, Carter paused to await what he doubtless knew was coming -- wild applause from a church audience whose collective political sentiments were plenty more Democratic than Republican.

Characteristically and to his credit, President Bush endured the insult like the gentleman he is, with his head held high -- as any president should.

As for Carter's comments, I personally was more disappointed than outraged. We all have petty streaks that sometimes beckon for the light of day. He simply let his get the best of him at just about the most inappropriate time possible. Aside from how one might feel about Carter's liberal political philosophy, his unfortunate comments belied the fact that he is, in my view, a better man than this.

You can bet that former president Bill Clinton, who also eulogized Mrs. King, probably felt no sympathy with Carter's comments. It's no secret that during his own presidency, Clinton resented Carter's agenda of advancing his own foreign policy ideas, and Carter's tepid support for Clinton's presidency in general.

Even more disturbing was the decision by the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a longtime civil rights hero if there ever was one, to declare in his Coretta Scott King eulogy, "We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction," before somehow segueing in mid-sentence from this obvious political attack into more praise for Mrs. King.

Joe Lowery can be personable and kind, but is also unpredictable. As we dealt with each other in years past, he and I were often of a like mind on some topics. Other times -- including when we made joint TV appearances -- Joe would turn an about face on some issue or opinion, and often in a rough way.

In the end, it seemed that Joseph Lowery liked you if you agreed with him. But if you put forth a conservative concept, or disagreed with him on an issue for any reason, he apparently regarded you as an "evil Republican," out to destroy the progress America has made since admittedly brave men such as King and Lowery fought their historical fight for civil and voting rights for all Americans.

In truth, I could be much harsher in my comments. But that's hard to do, given that the folks I talk about here have noble sides of their characters to go with their baser instincts -- as do we all.

So allow me instead to change tacks by praising a father and son. Following Lowery's comments, George HW Bush helped dispel the tension by jokingly saying that his friend Joe Lowery almost always won the war of words when the two men had discussions during Lowery's visits to the White House.

What an absolute class act. Only someone with the true human warmth and dignity of President Bush's father could have reacted to such political savagery in such a disarming manner.

And then there is the president. When Lowery concluded his eulogy, President George W. Bush stood and embraced his verbal assailant. In my mind, at that moment, Bush rose to a new level of greatness.

I have not been wild about his profligate spending, his Medicare drug giveaway, or some of his other policies that I believe have steered the Republican Party off the Ronald Reagan-engineered road that led to GOP renewal and power in the 1980s and 1990s.

But I now better understand why he continues the fight in Iraq, despite the war's drag on his popularity. I better comprehend why he pushes issues often after the public has rejected them, most notably Social Security reform.

It's because he has genuine strength, fortitude and conviction. He possesses the ability to take punches and come up off the deck again and again.

In the church on the day of Mrs. King's funeral, I saw dignity from four fine children who had lost their mother.

I also saw it from a father and a son. They happened to be named Bush.