Casting Aspersions – EXTRA
In this first week of December media attention is overwhelmingly directed toward the elaborate obsequies attendant upon the burial of former president George H.W. Bush. President Bush was a nice man — a gentleman according to everyone who knew him personally. Regardless of whether one agreed with his policies, no one can reasonably deny that he was a man of dignity and integrity. He was president for a single term, a long time ago. He was not, however, Alfred the Great. He was not the symbol of the nation, deeply rooted in ancient folk beliefs and customs. He was simply a politician. The interminable church services, parades, massed choirs, hundreds of the military in dress uniforms, and lavish encomiums are appropriate to the death of a king, but are a display that would have horrified and disgusted the Founding Fathers.
For an example of what was once thought suitable, we need look no farther than the funeral of the father of the nation himself — George Washington. He was buried at Mount Vernon following a simple service for the family — period. While the nation certainly mourned, it did so privately and individually.
Washington was not a king. He was not a sacred person, anointed with the holy oil and crowned as the life-long symbol and embodiment of the nation and its laws. He was an elected leader who served his term, and did his job. Washington was a great general and a superb choice as the new nation’s first leader, but he himself rejected the titles and trappings of monarchy, and had a keen sense of the simply, unelaborated dignity appropriate to the leader of a republic. It appears that sense has been lost to us.
Personally, I am fascinated by ritual as an art form, and by the historic meaning of the elements of such elaborate ceremonies as the British coronation service. When the present queen passes, there will doubtless be a funeral of surpassing grandeur. This will be appropriate and correct for a tradition in which the head of state is considered the sacred symbol of the nation. It is not, however, our tradition here in the United States.
President Bush as a navy veteran is entitled to a military honor guard. Beyond that, one normal funeral service is all that is required. Given that such occasions are inevitably ones in which a large number of the great and the good wish to see and be seen, a venue such as the National Cathedral is necessary. That however should be an end of it. The pomp and circumstance attending every aspect of this burial, from loading the coffin on the plane from Texas to actually entombing the remains serves only to enhance the ever expanding aura of imperial majesty that has come to surround the presidency. It is not appropriate. It is the very antithesis of how the founders viewed our leaders and it would be anathema to them. It bodes ill for the future. What comes next? Will it be the king/president can do no wrong? Isn’t that the very issue surrounding the present Mueller investigation along with whether the president is above the law, just as is an anointed king?
Even through George Bush and Donald Trump publicly despised each other, Trump did attend the funeral. One wonders what lesson Trump will take away from the week of ceremonies. It is unlikely to be one of restraint, humility or modesty. It is quite likely to be a lesson that is good for neither Trump nor the nation at large.
Toby Grace is Out In Jersey magazine’s Editor Emeritus.