John Lewis, who spent his life and career as a civil servant battling tirelessly for civil rights, died Friday at the age of 80. Late Saturday morning, after hours of silence, the White House issued a proclamation calling for the flag to fly at half-staff on White House and public grounds, military posts, and more. The document, made public as the president golfed at his club in Virginia, is about as impersonal as it gets.
“As a mark of respect for the memory and longstanding public service of Representative John Lewis, of Georgia” the statement reads, “I hereby order, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, that the flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff at the White house and upon all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United states and its Territories and possessions through July 18, 2020. I also direct that the flag shall be flown at half-staff for the same period at all United States embassies, legations, consular offices, and other facilities abroad, including all military facilities and naval vessels and stations.”
“In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this eighteenth day of July, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fifth,” the statement concludes, signed Donald J Trump.
Veteran CBS White House reporter Mark Knoller said Lewis was the eighth person Trump has issued a flag-lowering proclamation for. The others were civil rights leader Elijah Cummings, long-serving Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, veteran Democratic Congressman John Dingell, former President George H.W. Bush, war hero and long-time Republican Congressman John McCain, evangelist Billy Graham, and astronaut-turned-congressman John Glenn.
A couple of hours later, the president tweeted: “Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family.”
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany posted her own statement on Twitter on Saturday morning calling Lewis “an icon of the civil rights movement” who left “an enduring legacy that will never be forgotten.”
“We hold his family in our prayers, as we remember Rep. John Lewis’ incredible contributions to our country,” she tweeted.
After McEnany posted her statement, Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA), who serves as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, urged the president to let McEnany’s statement speak for the administration.
“[W]hile the nation mourns the passing of a national hero, please say nothing,” Bass wrote on Twitter. “Please don’t comment on the life of Congressman Lewis... Please let us mourn in peace.”
Trump has struggled to honor his political rivals in the past; after John McCain’s death in 2018 he faced intense backlash when he ordered that flags be raised from half-mast to normal position. He said he was “no fan” of the late Republican and griped that no one thanked him for giving McCain a funeral.
One could argue that the president’s petty and impersonal responses to these passings are, in part, designed to avoid any whiff of hypocrisy—but nonetheless, the optics are never great. According to an MSNBC broadcast from Saturday morning, every living former president has now paid tribute to Lewis.
Trump’s 2020 opponent Joe Biden released a statement responding to Lewis’s death as well, praising his longtime colleague for his tireless and righteous work as well as his joyful spirit.
“We are made in the image of God, and then there is John Lewis,” Biden wrote in the lengthy statement. “How could someone in flesh and blood be so courageous, so full of hope and love in the face of so much hate, violence, and vengeance?
“Perhaps it was the Spirit that found John as a young boy in the Deep South dreaming of preaching the social gospel; the work ethic his sharecropper parents instilled in him and that stayed with him; the convictions of nonviolent civil disobedience he mastered from Dr. King and countless fearless leaders in the movement; or the abiding connection with the constituents of Georgia’s 5th District he loyally served for decades. Or perhaps it was that he was truly a one-of-a-kind, a moral compass who always knew where to point us and which direction to march.”
“It is rare to meet and befriend our heroes,” Biden continued. “John was that hero for so many people of every race and station, including us. He absorbed the force of human nature’s cruelty during the course of his life, and the only thing that could finally stop him was cancer. But he was not bitter. We spoke to him a few days ago for the final time. His voice still commanded respect and his laugh was still full of joy. Instead of answering our concerns for him, he asked about us. He asked us to stay focused on the work left undone to heal this nation. He was himself—a man at peace, of dignity, grace and character.”
“John’s life reminds us that the most powerful symbol of what it means to be an American is what we do with the time we have to make real the promise of our nation—that we are all created equal and deserve to be treated equally,” Biden wrote. “Through the beatings, the marches, the arrests, the debates on war, peace, and freedom, and the legislative fights for good jobs and health care and the fundamental right to vote, he taught us that while the journey toward equality is not easy, we must be unafraid and never cower and never, ever give up. That is the charge a great American and humble man of God has left us.”
“For parents trying to answer their children’s questions about what to make of the world we are in today, teach them about John Lewis,” Biden continued. “For the peaceful marchers for racial and economic justice around the world who are asking where we go from here, follow his lead. For his fellow legislators, govern by your conscience like he did, not for power or party. He was our bridge—to our history so we did not forget its pain and to our future so we never lose our hope. To John’s son, John Miles, and to his family, friends, staff, and constituents, we send you our love and prayers. Thank you for sharing him with the nation and the world. And to John, march on, dear friend. May God bless you. May you reunite with your beloved Lillian. And may you continue to inspire righteous good trouble down from the Heavens.”
Lewis was savagely beaten in a civil rights protest trying to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge into Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. In the decades after, he became a leading campaigner for voting rights and a congressman who served the country for decades. Time magazine declared Lewis a living saint.