Attending funerals isn’t an especially challenging chore. All you have to do is dress in formal but not flashy attire, maintain a somber expression throughout the proceedings, and avoid speaking ill of the guest of honor. It’s so simple, in fact, that the job is routinely entrusted to vice presidents.
Even so, President Barack Obama somehow managed to cause not just one but two separate controversies on Tuesday while attending the funeral for former South African President Nelson Mandela.
One flap involved some seemingly inappropriate levity with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt during the service. A series of widely-disseminated photographs show the two sharing laughs while Mandela is being eulogized, even as the dignitaries seated around them remain properly glum, and it can only be hoped that they’re not scoffing at the kind words being said. Some small amount of chuckling is permissible at funerals if shared between old friends recalling some endearing anecdote about their shared relationship with the deceased, but this is not a likely explanation for the yucks as neither Schmidt nor Obama ever met Mandela. In one of the photographs the pair smilingly pose for a “selfie” on the small camera Obama holds at arm’s length, which is a breach of etiquette at any funeral even in these coarse times. The photographs also suggest a sort of flirtatiousness between Obama and Schmidt, who is fairly attractive by head of state standards, and judging by the sour look on Michelle Obama’s face she seems to have noticed it as well.
A more significant controversy concerned Obama’s handshake with Cuban dictator Raul Castro. The gesture thrilled such excitable news commentators as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who squealed with delight that Mandela “brought people together in life and he continues to bring people together today,”, and it gave former President Jimmy Carter hope that it will lead to friendlier relationships with Cuba, but more sensible observers such as Arizona Senator and failed presidential candidate John McCain were put off by such cordiality toward a murderous communist dictator. White House officials were quick to downplay the handshake, insisting it was not a “pre-planned encounter,” and noted that Obama’s eulogy included a subtle swipe at the unnamed countries that fail to lie up to Mandela’s ideal of freedom. The handshake was more noteworthy than the forgettable eulogy, which was also a sort of “selfie” that suggested Mandela’s greatest achievement in life was inspiring the career of Obama, but it’s nice to know that the president is at least sensitive to the soft-on-communism charge that has dogged him throughout his political career.
All in all, it was a rather poor funeral performance by the president. On the other hand, at least he didn’t bring his dog.
— Bud Norman