Calculated Decisions Even in Death for the White House

Photograph by D Dipasupil/Getty Images

Donna Summer remembered in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan.

Donna Summer and Dick Clark got one. Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Mike Wallace didn’t.

So what is it?

It is a personal statement from President Obama marking their deaths and lauding their lives.

Between March 1 and May 30 the president issued six statements recognizing the deaths of serious politicians and iconic figures alike. The list ranged from Congressman Donald Payne, who was the first black congressman to represent New Jersey, to Coptic Christian Pope Shenouda III of Egypt, to King George Tupou V of Tonga, to “American Bandstand” creator Dick Clark, and singer and 70s disco icon Donna Summer.

He said Summer “truly was the ‘Queen of Disco'” in a May 17 statement.

Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said the decision about who to honor and who to skip is extremely calculated. “I would bet that they vet these people as fully as judicial nominees.”

The president must take three things into account when considering who rises to the level of a statement, Baker said:

— whether the person is too controversial and if so “by honoring that person are you likely to alienate some considerable segment of the population?” (i.e. Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston);
— whether it’s a “constituency that you want to cultivate”;
— and whether the person is important enough.

A disproportionate number of Obama’s statements honor African Americans. Baker said that may be because the president has come under criticism from some in the black community for not being attentive enough to their needs and in a sense, he said, honoring black leaders in death “is a kind of pay for not doing some of what they want.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest would not comment on the process, but a former official in President George W. Bush’s White House said that usually the statements are drafted by someone in the press, communications or speechwriting offices. Often there’s a chance to get words directly from the president before the statement goes out.

Folk musician and North Carolina native Doc Watson, who died Tuesday, may stand a chance for a statement. He is from the swing state of North Carolina after all.

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