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Greenfield: 'Do you really do this at a funeral?'

CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield listens to a question from CNN anchor Miles O'Brien on Wednesday.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Four U.S. presidents -- including President George W. Bush -- were among the luminaries at Coretta Scott King's funeral Tuesday. Among some speakers' accolades and tributes to the civil rights icon were criticisms of the current administration's actions -- the war in Iraq and domestic eavesdropping.

CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield talked to CNN anchor Miles O'Brien about politics raising its head at the funeral.

O'BRIEN: It was quite a funeral, six hours. And the full range of emotions as Coretta Scott King was laid to rest. There were songs, prayers, praise and a healthy dose of politics.

Former presidents Carter and Clinton, and civil rights legend Joseph Lowery used their time at the pulpit to take some jabs at the current administration with the man, as you see, seated a few feet away, President Bush. (Watch a part of Carter's jab and how it fits into black politics -- 4:05)

Jeff Greenfield is here to talk about the implications of all of this.

Before we get going, we will share video of former President Carter making reference to wiretaps, which of course has historical parallels here to Martin Luther King Day.

(Video clip begins)

CARTER: It was difficult for them personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the targets of secret government wiretapping, other surveillance.

(Video clip ends)

O'BRIEN: All right. Not so subtle a statement there .What were your thoughts on this as you watched this unfold? Did it surprise you, first of all?

GREENFIELD: Well, I can't say that, because she was such a symbol of a particular moment in American political history. We should mention, by the way, that Martin Luther King was wiretapped during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations at the direction of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was a hero of that movement.

But what struck me also was how quickly this became an item within the other side, within the political right. And within hours, I think when the funeral was still going on, this popped up as the headline on "The Drudge Report," which often begins the transmission through particularly conservative media.

On "Hannity & Colmes" last night on Fox, it was the lead item. And Rush Limbaugh on his Web site went off on Joseph Lowery, whose piece he played, and called it -- and this was really the key, as you mentioned in your intro to this, "a Wellstone moment."

O'BRIEN: Tell us about that. We're referring to the late senator.


Back in 2002, shortly before the election, Senator Wellstone was killed in a plane crash. And at the memorial service, a number of political people made the point to honor Paul Wellstone's memory, vice president -- ex-vice president Mondale who was running in the state should be elected. There were also -- there was some booing, apparently, not that much, directed at some Republican senators there.

It became an article of faith on the political right that this had become a real ugly moment, when partisanship replaced memorials. After the funeral yesterday, Kate O'Beirne, a prominent conservative writer, said liberals don't know how to keep politics out of their funerals.

And on the Daily Kos, which is a site from the left, the argument was these conservatives had nothing to do with civil rights, they have no right to lecture us.

O'BRIEN: Well, let's talk about this, because when you talk about a Wellstone moment, timing is an awful lot in politics. And the timing there very different than here.

GREENFIELD: Absolutely. That memorial service happened literally three or four days before the election. And there was a backlash to it that may have helped the Republicans take that Senate seat.

We're now in early February. The idea that this is going to have some political implication, you have to really be overcommitted to endless analysis.

I do, however, think that in a more subtle way, this actually rebounds to the credit of President Bush. I mean, he came to the funeral, changed his plans, made a gracious speech. And I think for people who are not politically committed -- I mean, if you don't like George Bush, this was fine. If you like George Bush, this was horrible.

I think for a lot of people the idea is, do you really do this at a funeral?

O'BRIEN: Yes. Now, you've written your share of speeches for Bobby Kennedy, as a matter of fact, in a previous career.

GREENFIELD: Among others.

O'BRIEN: Among others. Would you have ever injected -- if you were writing this -- this kind of a talk, this eulogy, would you have injected politics in there? Think about it honestly.

GREENFIELD: Well, when you remember the history of the black church in America in terms of the civil rights movement, I mean this is where Martin Luther King -- Reverend Martin Luther King organized the Montgomery bus boycott back in 1956. It's hard to keep politics out when you consider that part of what Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King represented was a huge political shift.

I think on appropriateness grounds, you probably would be a lot more subtle. I mean, this -- the idea of civil rights in America has become now a consensus. There is nobody arguing that Martin Luther King was on the wrong side of history. And probably if you want to make your political points about the president, there are other venues to do it.

O'BRIEN: You sort of get the sense that these days nuance is dead. It's coarse, isn't it?

GREENFIELD: Yes. Now, I don't want to -- I mean, the problem is, when you get to be my age, you always think that the tomatoes were better in the old days. But I do think that -- that, look, one of Robert Kennedy's greatest speeches came when he told a crowd in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King had been shot. That's an iconic moment. But there was no politics in that speech.


GREENFIELD: There was a quote ... about tragedy. And maybe that was a more appropriate way to talk at a funeral.

O'BRIEN: Was that one of yours?

GREENFIELD: You know, that was a moment that nobody wrote that for him.

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