Mark Kennedy: The power of state funerals
By Mark Kennedy
With today's funeral of President George H.W. Bush, memories from past state funerals rush through my mind. Few events in the course of a nation's history bring its core beliefs in sharper focus than remembrances of our national leaders.
I began life in an all-Irish town and was 6 when John F. Kennedy was shot. Among my earliest memories was watching his funeral on our black-and-white TV. His inaugural address was constantly replayed during the broadcast, so JFK's words remain imprinted in my mind: "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans ... unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world."
Something about that funeral made me believe that I was handed a torch to carry on America's mission to "assure the survival and the success of liberty." Watching the outpouring of grief around the world for JFK's passing affirmed to me, at that tender age, of the possibility and importance of keeping our international relations strong. My life's course was changed by John Kennedy's state funeral.
My daughter, Emily, was able to join me for President Reagan's funeral. As we walked through the rotunda to view Reagan lying in state and pay our last respects, I could not help but remember, as a young intern, paying my last respects to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, when he lay in state in the Capitol in January 1978. Whether you agreed with Reagan's or Humphrey's politics, and you could not agree with both of them, I think it is appropriate for all to pay respect for the passion, commitment and energy they brought to their service to America.
At Reagan's service, Emily had the opportunity to meet every president, vice president and first lady since she was born. She also had an opportunity to see global leaders from Prince Charles and King Abdullah to Kofi Annan.
Attendees at the National Cathedral included representation from every faith and religion from every region of the world and every viewpoint imaginable. My mind went back to studying in Europe in 1982, when they were very critical of the bold, assertive foreign policy of Ronald Reagan, who just months before had given his "evil empire" speech to the House of Commons in London. Yet here they gathered from Europe and throughout the world to honor the man who defeated communism in Europe and restored America's confidence.
Each tribute to Reagan had its own power, weight and character. They were an appropriate balance between Reaganesque wit and solemn tribute. In between the accolades, the cathedral was filled with the most moving orchestral music I have heard. As I sat among the civic leaders of the world, listening to the inspiring music and gazing up to the lofty spires and stained-glass windows, I could not help but think that it is for times such as this that cathedrals are built.
It was great to be able to witness this all through my daughter's eyes. She is too young to remember Reagan firsthand, yet just as John Kennedy impacted me in my youth, Emily has been impacted by Reagan's optimism for the future, confidence in America and his commitment to the cause of freedom.
Today, we will honor the lifetime of service of President George H.W. Bush as Navy pilot, congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, chief envoy to China, head of the Central Intelligence Service, vice president, president and senior statesman. In so many ways, he was truly a point of light, partnering with President Reagan in removing the scourge of the Soviet threat, assembling nations to win the Gulf War and uniting our continent in a landmark trade pact.
State funerals serve many roles. Chief among them is inspiring the leaders of the future. Just as JFK inspired me and "the Gipper" my daughter, may many young people today draw inspiration from this week's events remembering President George H.W. Bush's lifelong commitment to a strong America championing freedom around the globe by gathering an ever-expanding coalition of the willing in common cause.
Upon Bush's death, the Navy tweeted simply, "Fair winds and following seas, sir. We have the watch." Only if today's young are animated by Bush's memory will America continue to have the watch.
Mark R. Kennedy is president of UND and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.