Q: Is President Obama the only president not to attend funeral services for a sitting Supreme Court justice (Antonin Scalia) or a former first lady (Nancy Reagan)?
A: Obama is not the first president to miss the funeral of a sitting justice, and presidents rarely attend the funerals of former first ladies.
Is President Obama the only U.S. president to not attend the funeral of a Supreme Court justice?
Is President Obama skipping Nancy Reagan’s funeral for a music fest?
Justice Antonin Scalia died on Feb. 13 of natural causes at the age of 79, according to the New York Times. A two-hour funeral service was held on Feb. 20 for Scalia at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
President Obama did not attend either funeral.
Obama’s Decision on Scalia
Scalia was considered one of the most influential conservative jurists in modern history, and President Obama’s decision not to attend Scalia’s funeral was criticized by conservative news commentators. For example, Megyn Kelly, host of Fox News’ “The Kelly File,” said on her Feb. 17 show: “I find no precedent for this in history, that a sitting U.S. president would not attend the death of a sitting Supreme Court justice. Why wouldn’t he go? The White House says he has no plans on Saturday.”
Let’s review Obama’s decision and compare his actions with those of previous presidents.
When asked about Obama’s plans for Scalia’s funeral, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest offered general remarks, explaining that the Obamas would not attend the funeral but that Vice President Joe Biden would.
Earnest, Feb. 17: The president and the first lady, on Friday, will travel to the Supreme Court to pay their respects to Justice Scalia as he lies in repose there at the Supreme Court. I can tell you that Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden will attend Justice Scalia’s funeral at the basilica on Saturday.
Question: The president will not be at the funeral on Saturday?
Earnest: The president will pay his respects at the Supreme Court on Friday, and he’ll be joined with the first lady when he does that.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama attended the Friday event at the court, which was also attended by the eight remaining justices and members of Scalia’s family, as reported by Reuters. “The president and first lady Michelle Obama were greeted by Chief Justice John Roberts, spoke with some Scalia family members and briefly stood in silence, heads bowed, in front of Scalia’s casket during an afternoon visit,” Reuters reported.
Obama had no public schedule on the day of Scalia’s funeral.
Historical Trends for Justices
It is rare in modern history for a sitting justice to die in office. Scalia’s death was only the seventh in the last 70 years, based on our review of justices who died in office between 1946 and 2016.
Washington and Lee University law professor Todd C. Peppers told CBS: “Dying this suddenly on the bench is the exception, not the rule, for the justices in the twentieth century.”
The last Supreme Court justice to die in office was Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who succumbed to his battle with cancer in 2005. CNN reported that President Bush and first lady Laura Bush attended the funeral. In fact, President Bush gave a eulogy during the funeral mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
President Dwight Eisenhower attended one of two funerals for justices who died while he was in office. The New York Times reported that Eisenhower traveled from Denver to Washington in 1953 for the funeral of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson. However, when Justice Robert H. Jackson died in 1954, Eisenhower did not attend the funeral and instead sent a “5-foot cross of white carnations” that was placed at Jackson’s coffin, according to the Los Angeles Times.
President Harry Truman attended one of the three funerals for Supreme Court justices who died during the Truman administration.
When Chief Justice Harlan Stone passed away in 1946, Truman interrupted his cruise to attend the funeral, according to the New York Times. However, Truman did not attend the funerals for the justices who died in 1949, Justices Wiley B. Rutledge and Frank Murphy. In the case of Murphy’s funeral, Truman sent a representative, Secretary of Labor Maurice Tobin, according to the Washington Post.
Seven sitting justices died during four administrations from 1946 to 2016. Presidents attended three of the seven funerals, but Obama was the only one of the four not to attend at least one.
Nancy Reagan’s Funeral
Less than a month after Scalia died, former first lady Nancy Reagan died at age 94. Two days after her death, White House Press Secretary Earnest was asked if President Obama would attend the funeral for the wife of a conservative icon, President Ronald Reagan.
Earnest, March 8: The funeral has been scheduled for Friday and Mrs. Obama will attend.
Q: The president is not going to attend?
Earnest: The president will not attend. The president actually is traveling in Texas on Friday.
First lady Michelle Obama did attend Reagan’s funeral, which was held on March 11. That day the president attended the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, where he delivered remarks about civic engagement, entrepreneurship and technology.
Historical Trends for First Ladies
As the New York Post explains: “In recent decades, presidents have not attended the funerals of former first ladies.”
We examined the last five funerals that were held for former first ladies. We found that while it is customary for first ladies to attend such services, a sitting president attended only one:
- President Obama did not attend Betty Ford’s funeral services, which were held July 12, 2011, at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, California. But first lady Michelle Obama did attend, along with former first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan. Former first lady Barbara Bush attended a church service in Michigan, where Ford was buried.
- President George W. Bush did not attend the funeral for Lady Bird Johnson, who passed away in 2007. First lady Laura Bush did attend, as did former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and former first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan. The service was held at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas.
- President Bill Clinton attended the graveside services of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at Arlington National Cemetery on May 23, 1994, and delivered an address. “May the flame she lit so long ago, burn ever brighter here and always brighter in our hearts,” Clinton said. First lady Hillary Clinton attended a funeral mass earlier in the day at St. Ignatius Loyola in New York City.
- Clinton did not, however, attend the funeral of former first lady Pat Nixon, according to the Los Angeles Times. That funeral was held in Yorba Linda, California, on June 26, 1993 — the same day that Clinton ordered an attack on Iraq in retaliation for an assassination attempt on President George H.W. Bush. The president was represented at the funeral by Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the chair of Clinton’s transition team, the Times said.
- President Ronald Reagan did not attend former first lady Bess Truman’s funeral in 1982, according to the Washington Post. First lady Nancy Reagan did attend, along with former first ladies Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford.
In addition to Clinton’s presence at burial for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, firstladies.org reports that President Zachary Taylor attended Dolley Madison’s funeral in 1849, and President Theodore Roosevelt attended the funeral of Julia Grant in 1902 and Ida McKinley in 1907. Also, President John F. Kennedy attended Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral in 1962.
Although President Obama did not attend the funerals of either Scalia or Reagan, he is not the first president not to attend the funeral of a sitting justice, and there is little historical precedent for presidents to attend the funerals of former first ladies.
Clarification, March 17: Our original story said President Bill Clinton “was the only sitting president to attend the funeral of a former first lady since 1982.” We have removed that wording to avoid confusion. As we made clear elsewhere in the story, we were referring only to our review of the last five funerals that were held for former first ladies – a time frame that spanned 1982 to 2016.
Correction, March 18: We originally wrote that there had only been four times when a sitting president attended the funeral of a former first lady, citing firstladies.org as our source. However, we missed President John F. Kennedy, who attended Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral in 1962.
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