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Bush Gets an Earful at Coretta King's Funeral


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Bush Gets an Earful at Coretta King's Funeral

By Peter Wallsten and Richard Fausset

LITHONIA, Ga. -- A day of eulogizing Coretta Scott King turned into a rare, in-person rebuke of President Bush, with a succession of civil rights and political leaders assailing White House policies as evidence that the dream of social and racial equality pursued by King and her slain husband is far from reality.

Bush and his wife, Laura, sat on stage as worshippers cheered the suggestions from several speakers that the civil rights movement -- led in the 1960s by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and fostered since his assassination by the widowed Coretta -- remains alive, its goals not fully realized.

Tuesday's service, lasting six hours, much of it carried live nationally on cable television, marked an unusual combination of political pageantry and civil rights history. The spectacle included humor, interpretive dance, gospel and classical music, shouting and testifying, and a list of dignitaries that made room for three former presidents, poet Maya Angelou and crooner Michael Bolton.

But it also included pointed political commentary, much of it aimed at Bush. The president and his wife watched as the sanctuary at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near Atlanta filled with raucous cheers for their White House predecessors, Bill and Hillary Clinton -- a reminder that five years into his term, Bush and the Republican Party he leads have not found the acceptance across black America that GOP strategists had hoped.

"This commemorative ceremony this morning and this afternoon is not only to acknowledge the great contributions of Coretta and Martin, but to remind us that the struggle for equal rights is not over," said former President Carter, a Democrat and former Georgia governor, to rising applause. "We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, those who were most devastated by Katrina, to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans."

Carter, who has had a strained relationship with Bush, drew cheers when he used the Kings' struggle as a reminder of the recent debate over whether Bush violated civil liberties protections when he ordered warrantless surveillance of some domestic phone calls and e-mails.

Noting that the Kings' work was "not appreciated even at the highest level of the government," Carter said: "It was difficult for them personally -- with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretapping, other surveillance, and as you know, harassment from the FBI." Bush has said his own program of warrantless wiretapping is aimed at stopping terrorists.

The most overtly partisan remarks came from the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a King protege and longtime Bush critic, who noted Coretta King's opposition to the war in Iraq and criticized Bush's commitment to boosting the poor.

"She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar," he said. "We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew and we knew that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor."

As the barbs flew, Bush seemed to take the heat in stride, smiling at times, giving Lowery a standing ovation and even pulling the civil rights leader in for a bear hug.

The president himself received polite applause before and after his seven-minute eulogy, in which he said he attended the service "to offer the sympathy of our entire nation at the passing of a woman who worked to make our nation whole."

"As a great movement of history took shape, her dignity was a daily rebuke to the pettiness and cruelty of segregation," the president said.

Sitting with Bush on the stage by King's flower-draped casket were three ex-presidents: Clinton, Carter and the president's father, George H.W. Bush, along with one potential future presidential candidate, Sen. Clinton, a Democrat from New York.

The appearance by Bush, who decided over the weekend to rearrange his schedule and attend the service, came as his approval rating among blacks has slipped to the low single digits in some surveys -- a direct response, some strategists believe, to the government's failed response in the wake of Katrina.

Civil rights leaders and Democrats have also criticized Bush's proposed new budget plan announced this week, which would increase defense spending while maintaining tax cuts for wealthier Americans and reducing aid to the poor.

For Bush, the service offered a rare face-to-face encounter with some of the traditional, liberal civil rights leaders, such as Lowery, that he has avoided since taking office. While Bush has never addressed an NAACP convention as president, he has instead sought to build black support by reaching to more conservative pastors and business leaders sympathetic to his entrepreneurial vision of government.

New Birth and its pastor, Bishop Eddie Long, have been at the center of those outreach efforts, with Long and other leaders of black "megachurches" meeting on several occasions with Bush at the White House to discuss directing money to faith-based charities, combating AIDS in Africa, poverty and other topics.

But as the speeches continued Tuesday, the scene reflected the uphill struggle that Republicans have faced in courting blacks, even before Hurricane Katrina focused attention on black poverty.

But for all of the bare partisanship, the service offered light moments and conviviality.

Former President Bush poked fun at Lowery, joking that he used to keep a score card in his Oval Office desk of their interactions. It was Lowery 21, Bush 3, he said, adding: "It wasn't a fair fight."

The elder Bush, who as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1964 campaigned against the Civil Rights Act pursued by the Kings, acknowledged that the service was an unusual experience.

"I come from a rather conservative Episcopal parish," Bush said. "And I haven't seen anything like this in my life."

For the assembled politicians, the applause was most thunderous for Bill Clinton. Sen. Clinton stood at his side at the podium as he spoke, and her brief comments later focused on how Coretta King had taken up the mission of her husband.


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