When does a US president deliver the eulogy?

Obama has already made public comments since Sen. Edward Kennedy’s death. But it is Obama's eulogy, to be delivered Saturday at the funeral mass, that could be most revealing.

Elise Amendola/AP
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in Boston where President Obama will eulogize Senator Edward Kennedy Saturday, August 29.

It’s not unusual for an American president to deliver a public eulogy for a fallen friend, predecessor, or otherwise distinguished citizen.

George W. Bush eulogized two former presidents: Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. Jimmy Carter did so for former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Bill Clinton eulogized former President Richard Nixon, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, and Pamela Harriman, an ambassador and Democratic activist.

President Obama’s first such moment arrives on Saturday, when he will eulogize his mentor and friend, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, at his funeral mass. Mr. Obama has already made public comments since Senator Kennedy’s death on Tuesday, delivering remarks from Martha’s Vineyard the morning the news broke.

Obama also issued a proclamation, touting Kennedy as “not only one of the greatest senators of our time, but one of the most accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy” and ordering that US flags be flown at half-staff at all public buildings. Obama’s political operation, Organizing for America, issued a separate Kennedy tribute via its vast e-mail list.

But it is the eulogy that could be most revealing – as much a window into Obama as into the man whose presidential endorsement helped galvanize support during the 2008 campaign.

“There’s no set script,” says Gerhard Peters of the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which maintains a database of presidential speeches and documents.

When Mr. Nixon eulogized Dwight Eisenhower, whom he had served as vice president, “you could see reflected in his words his deep admiration and respect for the man,” says Mr. Peters.

One of the most memorable presidential eulogies of modern times was Mr. Reagan’s tribute to the seven astronauts of the Challenger space shuttle, who perished in 1986. Delivered at a memorial service at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Reagan’s words moved the nation and earned him the title “comforter in chief.”

Other eulogies entail more complexity. Mr. Clinton’s remarks on Nixon acknowledged the disgraced former president’s mistakes but also celebrated his postpresidential years, in which he wrote nine books and was particularly active in the foreign-policy arena. The speech could also come to be viewed ironically: Nixon had resigned before he could be impeached over Watergate. At the time of Nixon’s death in 1994, Clinton’s own scandal lay in the future; he was impeached for lying under oath but was not forced from office.

Obama probably will not raise the less-than-flattering aspects of Kennedy’s past. The president got to know him late in life, after Kennedy had settled down and become a senior statesman of the Senate.


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