In the age of Donald Trump, even funerals are political.
Elijah Cummings and John McCain did not share a whole lot in common besides the profession of politics. They were of different races and political parties; they had greatly different life experiences; they lived on different ends of the country; and they even served on different sides of the Capitol.
But both lawmakers died during Trump’s presidency, and as such, they were both remembered in death for the roles they played in this tumultuous political era—as distinctly honorable men who stood up to a man who is not.
“There is nothing weak about kindness and compassion,” former President Barack Obama said this afternoon as he eulogized Cummings, the senior Democratic congressman who died last week at the age of 68. “There is nothing weak about looking out for others. There is nothing weak about being honorable. You are not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect.”
As Obama spoke, a crowd of thousands at the New Psalmist Baptist Church, in Cummings’s hometown of Baltimore, applauded knowingly and cheered. He riffed on the title “The Honorable,” which is given by default to people in elected office, affixed to their first and last names. “Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected to office,” Obama said. “There’s a difference.”
Obama never uttered Trump’s name or directly referenced the current president. Nor did the other luminaries who eulogized Cummings this afternoon: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, the congressman’s widow and his possible successor in the House.
But just as he was when McCain was laid to rest a year ago in Washington, D.C., Trump seemed a spectral presence at Cummings’s funeral—an object of implicit scorn in contrast with the deceased; a figure who was, in internet speak, subtweeted in speech after speech. Cummings died at the pinnacle of his power, 10 months after becoming chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and just as he was about to assume a prominent role in the impeachment inquiry into Trump.
“He stood against corrupt leadership, like King Ahab and Queen Jezebel,” said Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, comparing Cummings to his biblical namesake.
When her husband spoke, he observed with wonder how Cummings could befriend so many Republicans at a time of such intense partisanship.
“You can’t run a free society if you have to hate everybody you disagree with,” the former president said, as again the mourners cheered what they saw as a reference to the current one. Those in the pews included two of Trump’s most loyal congressional GOP allies, Representatives Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio. Meadows was a close friend of Cummings, and Jordan sparred with him as the top Republican on the oversight panel.
Like McCain, whose service in Vietnam Trump denigrated, Cummings spent the last months of his life in the president’s rhetorical crosshairs. Trump called out Cummings’s beloved Baltimore as “a disgusting rat and rodent infested mess” and blamed the Democrat for the city’s struggles with crime and poverty. Trump didn’t attend Cummings’s funeral. Nor did he go to McCain’s. But his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, sat in the church last year as the late senator’s daughter Meghan McCain castigated their father without naming him. “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again,” she said, “because America was always great.”
This afternoon, Cummings’s widow drew the sharpest contrast between her late husband and the president who attacked him. She began by acknowledging Obama and the Clintons in the front row. “You didn’t have any challenges like we do now,” Rockeymoore Cummings told Obama, drawing a laugh from the former president. She noted how Cummings was a fierce defender of Hillary Clinton against “very spurious claims” made by Republicans over the years. “Then he had to go on fighting for our democracy against very real corruption,” she added, as Clinton herself nodded along.
Rockeymoore Cummings’s voice rose as she described how, despite his “grace and dignity in public forums,” her husband was truly “hurt” by the attacks on him and his city. She said that although Cummings did not want a memorial service in the Capitol, where yesterday he became the first African American lawmaker to lie in state, she insisted that he be remembered with “the respect and the dignity that he deserved.”
“He was a man of integrity!” she thundered, as the mourners rose, cheering, to their feet. “Do you hear me?”
Rockeymoore Cummings was speaking to an audience who already knew well her husband’s integrity; in a service that stretched nearly four hours, it was the topic of just about every eulogy. But the attacks Cummings sustained from the president toward the end of his life seemed to demand that his core attributes be recalled with greater urgency, just as it was with McCain a year ago.
It’s yet another reminder of how broadly Trump has affected American public life in the past few years, his influence felt even in death and legacy. The president has changed how his rivals are mourned, even at funerals to which he was not invited.