I’ve always remembered a piece of advice I once read : always go to the funeral, it said. Even if you don’t know if you should, even if you’d rather not, always go to the funeral. The reasoning behind the advice is that you’re going for the people left behind. It will mean something to them.
When former first lady Nancy Reagan is buried on Friday , first lady Michelle Obama will attend the funeral, which is being held in California, but President Obama will not. Instead, he will be in Austin, Texas, leading a conversation about innovation in government at SxSW, and then headlining two Democratic fundraisers.
There are plenty of reasons for the president not to go to Mrs. Reagan’s funeral, including the enormous mess a presidential visit creates anywhere. An event that should be dignified and intimate can feel more like a circus when a presidential security detail shows up. There is also no precedent that requires him to attend. In 1993, neither President Bill Clinton nor then-first lady Hillary Clinton went to former first lady Pat Nixon’s funeral, although Bill Clinton eulogized both President Richard Nixon, as well as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, when they each died a year later. And when Lady Bird Johnson died in 2007, only Laura Bush, who was first lady at the time, went to Texas for the service. President George W. Bush did not attend and had no scheduled events that day.
But for President Obama, a man so skilled in symbolism, attending Mrs. Reagan’s funeral Friday -- or Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral Mass a few weeks earlier -- could have been a moment for him to send a message that even Washington, and he as its leader, can rise above politics when it matters.
These two funeral services are just the most recent examples of missed opportunities for President Obama to do the small things, especially with Republicans, that could have had a big impact on his presidency. In and of themselves, the gestures that build and sustain relationships in Washington can seem insignificant — calling a congressman to ask his opinion about this or that, asking a subcommittee chair to dinner, giving out extra tickets to the White House picnic for a congresswoman’s children.
Over the last seven years, President Obama has had major successes related to his agenda, but he has done little of the relationship building that connects a White House to the rest of Washington and makes broader progress possible. President Clinton was almost maniacal in his constant contact with members of Congress. Former members told of growing to expect 11 p.m. phone calls from the White House with an occasional invitation attached. “What are you doing in the morning? Do you want to play golf?” Clinton would ask.
President George W. Bush was equally extroverted in his outreach, although he concentrated his invitations on Republicans until Democrats took over Congress in 2007. There were movie nights in the White House screening room, trips aboard Air Force One, and rounds golf before he gave it up during the Iraq War. Although politics were rarely discussed, the message about working together in the future was implicit.
It may have been too clubby for some, and too transactional for others, but these gestures made their recipients feel important and respected. Even President Obama seems to sense he could have done more here. In his final State of the Union address in January, he said one of the few regrets of his presidency is that "the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better." He said Presidents Lincoln or Roosevelt might have done a better job than he, but “I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
Republicans made no secret of the fact that they didn’t want to work with President Obama when he came to Washington. Sen. Mitch McConnell famously said keeping the president to one term was his top priority, while the Republican-led House and Senate seem to have made unwinding President Obama's agenda their only priority for nearly five years of controlling the two chambers. Still, I’ll always wonder what more the president could have accomplished if he had made the calls, extended the invitations and gone to the funerals.
Both Mrs. Reagan and Justice Scalia were deeply respected by Republicans while they were alive, and have been lionized as embodying endangered conservative ideals since their deaths. Many of those people mourning them today probably don’t have many nice things to say about President Obama, but having the sitting president at their funerals would have meant something to them. It would not have changed their minds about his agenda. It may not have even made them like him more. But it would have meant something.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for the Daily Beast. Follow her on Twitter at @1patriciamurphy
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