Originally posted at the New York Times by Gardiner Harris.
The White House on Thursday tried to fend off criticism of President Obama’s decision not to attend the funeral this weekend of Justice Antonin Scalia, but even some administration allies lamented the move as a missed opportunity to ease the partisan warfare that has followed the justice’s death.
Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, will pay their respects by visiting the Supreme Court on Friday, when Justice Scalia will lie in repose in the Great Hall. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is Catholic — as was Justice Scalia — and had a personal relationship with him and his family, will attend the funeral on Saturday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception along with his wife, Jill.
Facing questions again on Thursday about the decision, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, did not offer a direct answer but implied that one reason was the potential for the extensive presidential security detail to be disruptive.
“Obviously, when the vice president travels to some place, his security footprint is at least a little bit lighter,” Mr. Earnest said. “But given his personal relationship with the family and given the president’s desire to find a respectful way to pay tribute to Justice Scalia’s service to the country, we believe we have settled on an appropriate and respectful arrangement.”
Administration officials were stung by what they saw as an unfair attack on what they viewed as Mr. Obama’s dignified and respectful reaction to Justice Scalia’s death, a reaction they thought contrasted sharply with that of others in Washington who quickly politicized the loss.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly expressed condolences to Justice Scalia’s family and, while acknowledging their differences, praised him as “somebody who made enormous contributions to the United States.”
“Some people actually want to use the funeral of the Supreme Court justice as some sort of political cudgel,” Mr. Earnest said. “The president doesn’t think that that’s appropriate, and, in fact, what the president thinks is appropriate is respectfully paying tribute to high-profile patriotic American citizens even when you don’t agree on all the issues. And that’s what he’s going to do.”
Still, some supporters of the administration saw Mr. Obama’s decision as another reflection of the capital’s deep partisan divide.
But Ed Whelan, the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who once clerked for Justice Scalia and shares the same faith, said that Mr. Obama made the right decision. Mr. Whelan emphasized that traditional Catholic funerals are deeply religious affairs during which even eulogies are discouraged.
“For Catholics, a funeral Mass is first and foremost a funeral, not an event of state,” Mr. Whelan said.
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The Supreme Court gives great deference to historical precedent, but history provides conflicting clues about whether a presidential visit to the funeral is appropriate.
While President George W. Bush attended the funeral in 2005 of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who was the last justice to die while on the bench, funerals of other justices have passed without the presence of either the president or the vice president.
Michael Moreland, a law professor at Villanova University who is Catholic and was on the White House staff of Mr. Bush, said both sides had valid points.
The event on Friday at the Supreme Court is the more appropriate place for a presidential visit, he said, but Mr. Obama’s attendance at the funeral “could have been a nice occasion for reducing polarization of D.C.’s political culture.”
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