Honoring the Fallen
Capping a week of deserved tributes, the funeral for Rep. John Lewis in Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church brought me back a quarter-century to another funeral for another revered member of Congress, former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill.
On a cold January day at St. John the Evangelist Church in North Cambridge — where O’Neill had, 53 years earlier, wed his beloved Millie and been baptized as an infant — came two former presidents, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, the vice president, the current and former speakers of the House, and scores of senators and House members. But there to honor the man who had become the first Irish Catholic Democrat, the man who conservative historian Michael Barone called “the most widely respected legislator in 20th-century history,” were nurses, waitresses, nuns and firefighters — Tip’s people.
That night, a group of us gathered to reflect on the day and the man who never forgot where he came from or the people who sent him, and I recall the words of then-Rep., now-Sen. Ed Markey as people commented on the overflow turnout of the famous and the unknown at Tip’s funeral mass. Markey said: “Every politician in that church today — witnessing that incredible outpouring of love and appreciation — had exactly the same thought: ‘I’ll never have a funeral like this. … Damn it.'”
Well, with three U.S. presidents there to eulogize him — George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — along with the eyes of the nation watching over the live television coverage, Lewis did “have a funeral like this” — and even more.
All of which brings me to the point of this little piece: In order to have a funeral like Tip O’Neill’s or John Lewis’, there is one thing you must do, and that is to lead a life like they did.
It’s not that complicated, if you think about it. But it’s not easy either. Never forget where you come from or the people who sent you. Stand up for those who do not have power or political action committees representing their interests in high places. Give a voice to the voiceless; remember the forgotten; build coalitions by reaching out across the divide to find common ground. Don’t pose; produce. It’s not about the purity of your positions; it’s about real and positive change. By working together, we can help make ours a more just, decent, humane and loving community
Do that and the funeral will take care of itself.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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