Obama's Shameful Refusal to Attend Scalia's Funeral

Obama's Shameful Refusal to Attend Scalia's Funeral
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President Obama's decision not to attend Justice Antonin Scalia's funeral is shameful. It mirrors his decision to skip the state funeral for Margaret Thatcher in 2013. On these somber, formal occasions, the president is called upon to represent our country as the head of state. He is not representing his party, his political agenda, or himself personally. He is representing our country—or at least he should be. On Saturday, it is his duty to mourn a man who sat on the Supreme Court for decades. He is shirking that duty.

The president is rarely asked to serve as head of state. Most of the time, he serves in explicitly political positions, heading the executive branch and his party. He plays that political role when he sends a bill to Congress, issues an executive order, or campaigns for an embattled senator. Wearing that hat, he can be as partisan as he wishes (or thinks prudent). That’s perfectly fine.

But on those rare occasions when called upon to act as our nation's head of state, he must quash those partisan instincts. At such times, he speaks for us all.

One of President Reagan’s finest moments came in this regard, speaking at the funeral for the crew killed on the space shuttle Challenger. His opening words: “We come together today to mourn the loss of seven brave Americans, to share the grief we all feel and, perhaps in that sharing, to find the strength to bear our sorrow and the courage to look for the seeds of hope.” His opening words are the key to a head-of-state role: “We come together today . . . “

Three days earlier, just after the tragedy, Reagan spoke to the nation. His words still echo. “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

President Obama need not reach these rhetorical heights. But he ought to behave with quiet dignity and represent our nation at Scalia’s funeral. He does not have to pretend he agreed with Scalia’s decisions. He does not have to praise the justice’s judicial philosophy. But he ought to honor the life of a man who spent three decades on the Supreme Court and five years before that on the U.S. appellate bench.

Refusing to attend the funeral does more than insult the memory of a life-long public servant. It is a failure to perform a basic presidential duty. Obama has shirked his responsibility to all of us.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at ZipDialog.com and can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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