Dirges for the Living Dead
by David Yearsley, November 23, 2016
At any political funeral, especially one as sorrowful and grandiose as Hillary’s ongoing obsequies, there will inevitably be abundant tears and cathartic sighs, long faces and stiff upper lips, doleful homilies and respectful postmortems. As Martin Luther observed 500 years ago when he abolished Purgatory and with it a crucial fundraising source of the Catholic church, such posthumous rituals are for the living not for the dead.
This past week Hillary’s shade did emerge briefly from the coffin prepared for her by the DNC to haunt a Children’s Defense Fund event in Washington, DC. That ethereal presence in blue did not cry or gnash teeth, nor show any signs of transfiguration. The terror of political death had not changed her. She promised to fight on for the kids from the far side of the Styx and the Potomac.
Even if somber disbelief mixed with anger continues to oppress her mourners, there will be some, at virtually every burial, who rejoice. In the past ten days there has been plenty of weeping and wailing, countless bungled autopsies, and, on Fox News and in Trump Tower, abundant gloating.
One thing you don’t get at political funerals, however, is music. The city protests and college walkouts of recent days have been mostly muted affairs, tuneless and dour. Nowhere to be heard was a fitting funeral march like that from Beethoven’s third or seventh symphony; no one went to the piano to rehearse Chopin’s famed dirge. The widower Bill Clinton did not unsheath his saxophone, the instrument that had marked the beginning of Clinton Time back in 1992 and by rights should have intoned its expiry.
In search of a musical eulogy for Hillary, I had to hearken back to March of this year. Mrs. Clinton was then in robust fighting form, dirty-tricking her way to victory over Bernie Sanders. She bluffed and bulldozed her way to a Super Tuesday win on March 1st, though, ominously, hers was not as big as that of her ultimate political mortician, Donald Trump. Bernie took Vermont and Minnesota, but Hillary trousered the big prizes. The following Saturday two out of the three caucuses, those in Maine and Kansas, went to Bernie. Hillary won Louisiana, a state that would never go Democratic; in the shrouded retrospect of political mourning that success had more the flavor of a poisoned chalice, or perhaps a bowl of rancid jambalaya.
The next day, Sunday, March 6, 2016, Nancy Reagan died at the age of ninety-four.
I thought of Alexander Cockburn’s unforgettable description of Ronald (and Nancy) at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in 1988:
“The President’s body sat there, not at all like a human frame reposing in the moments before public oratory, but as Reagan-at-rest extruding not a tincture of emotion until impelled by some unseen spasm of synapses into Reagan-amused, the briefest of smiles soon being dismissed in favor of the sombre passivity one associates with the shrouded figure in some newly-opened tomb before oxygen commences its mission of decay…”
Two days later Bernie swept to victory in the Michigan primary while Mississippi went to the eventual Democratic nominee. In those flagging vital signs were to be seen still more symptoms of Hillary’s accelerating political decay.
Nancy’s funeral took place that Thursday, March 10th, and according to the protocols of recently concocted tradition, Hillary left the campaign trail for the afternoon to join the other surviving first ladies at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. There they were: the regal Rosalynn Carter, the stylish Michelle Obama, and alongside the fetching Laura Bush, the candidate herself — the onetime White House figurehead repurposed as senator and secretary of state, and now journeying to the Reagan tribute not from the post-White House twilight but from the real political fray, poised to become the first female nominee of a major party in American history.
All but one of the remaining president’s wives was a Democrat paying homage before the Republican casket. That too must have been a sign of something, at the very least that in death the political differences disappear. The problem with American politics is that they disappear in life, too.
The living first ladies were placed in the front row, almost close enough to touch their dead colleague’s casket. Visible through the plate glass of the Reagan Presidential Library were lush hills spotted with McMansions and maybe even graced by a few beleaguered California poppies not blotted out by the trophy lawns. The green of spring had come to the Golden State in whose endless growing season it is always time both to sow and to reap.
As eight burly servicemen in dress uniforms carried in Nancy’s dark coffin the size of an aircraft carrier and placed it directly in front of the first ladies, a mixed choir from Simi Valley’s St. Susanna’s High School broke into a tepid, mincing version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
In a way it was a fitting choice, this onetime anthem of the Party of Lincoln—and of Reagan. During the Civil War and after, it was a hymn more of the Republicans than of the Republic. The text was penned in 1862 by the abolitionist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe and, like so many nineteenth-century hits, was then fitted to a popular tune, one previously sung most frequently to the words of “John Brown’s Body.”
The Simi Valley kids were prepared and sang well, but what they sang was bleached out, blinding white and almost unendurable. The piano intro showed the way to what was to come: a low G octave tremolo with modal chords above, blunting the evangelical fervor of the song before it had even begun. The choir entered in hushed diction, tiptoeing with Nancy towards the Promised Land: in place of the bloody armies of righteousness we got Sugarfree Plum fairies. Several AM Radio key changes ensued over an excruciating three minutes. Instead of the “grapes of wrath” there were sweet wine spritzers; rather than “His terrible swift sword” those assembled were offered the sonic equivalent of comforting hot towel to wipe away the tears. It would have been unendurable stuff had it not simultaneously been the perfect milquetoast fare for the place and the person being memorialized.
The mourners were meant to chime in on the choruses, and Hillary appears gamely ready to sing along, too, but she, like many others in the congregation, can’t find her way through the god-awful arrangement, one so intent on confusing participation rather than welcoming it.
You can also see that Hillary is embracing the event as a State Funeral, and it is touching to see her so ready to bust the precious mold of the First Lady into which her three colleagues had poured themselves. Hillary is ready to command from the Oval Office rather than be forced into behind-the-scenes astrologizing and puppeteering that Nancy had practiced during her White House years.
How could Hillary know the kids were singing about her?—
“He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.”
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)