A fu­neral fit for a Pres­i­dent

Kennedy’s fu­neral was im­pec­ca­bly or­gan­ised and bril­liantly reg­u­lated. What an aura the man had.

The Sunday Guardian - - & Comment Analysis -

Watch­ing the fu­neral ser­vices held for Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush ear­lier this week in Wash­ing­ton and Hous­ton, I was re­minded of the fu­neral of Pres­i­dent John F Kennedy in Novem­ber 1963, Pres­i­dent Charles de Gaulle in De­cem­ber 1970 and that of Pres­i­dent Ronald Re­gan in 2004.

I at­tended all three. On 22 Novem­ber 1963, I was driv­ing to the United Na­tions from my apart­ment at 404 East 66th Street. I had the car ra­dio on. Abruptly the mu­sic stopped. The an­nounce­ment that fol­lowed was so un­ex­pected that it took me a few sec­onds to take it in. Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy had been shot in the head in Dal­las. Within a few min­utes I reached the UN, rushed to in­form Smt Vi­jaya Lak­shmi Pan­dit of the ra­dio an­nounce­ment. She was hav­ing lunch in the Del­e­gates din­ing room. She had al­ready heard the news, ask­ing me to keep her in­formed of the Pres­i­dent’s con­di­tion. Within an hour he was de­clared dead. Man­hat­tan, the busiest and mo­bile piece of real es­tate on earth, al­most came to halt. A fright­en­ing, feel­ing set­tled on the city. In Septem­ber, the Pres­i­dent had ad­dressed the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly. That was the only time I saw him. What an aura the man had. Hand­some, six feet tall, stylish. The Gen­eral Assem­bly hall was full. The del­e­gates so ac­cus­tomed to hear inane, plat­i­tudi­nous speeches were spell­bound. Like Jawa­har­lal Nehru, Kennedy was a lover of words and phrases. Nehru wrote his own speeches. Kennedy had bril­liant speech writ­ers.

The ques­tion arose: who should rep­re­sent In­dia at the Pres­i­dent’s fu­neral? Jawa­har­lal Nehru was not well. Vi­jay­alak­shmi Pan­dit would rep­re­sent In­dia. The fu­neral was sched­uled for 25 Novem­ber.

Shri­mati Pan­dit ar­rived in Wash­ing­ton on 24 Novem­ber. I ac­com­pa­nied her. The fu­neral was at­tended by Em­per­ors, Kings, Pres­i­dents, Prime Min­is­ters, Vice-Pres­i­dents and For­eign Min­is­ters from over 120 coun­tries. It was im­pec­ca­bly or­gan­ised and bril­liantly reg­u­lated. It was a rainy day. The tall fig­ure of Pres­i­dent Charles de Gaulle out­shone all other rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The burial took place at Ar­ling­ton ceme­tery on a green slop­ing hill. The most mov­ing sight was to see the Pres­i­dent’s brother, Robert Kennedy hand over Mrs Jacque­line Kennedy the US flag that was spread over the cof­fin. It was folded to the ap­pro­pri­ate size.

In the evening, Mrs Kennedy hosted a re­cep­tion at the White House. Gen­eral de Gaulle, spot­ting Smt. Pan­dit, walked over to her, ask­ing, “How is your brother?” She replied, “He is hav­ing his prob­lems.” De Gaulle, “Tell him, I am hav­ing mine.”

Pres­i­dent Charles de Gaulle died on 9 Novem­ber 1970. He had left in­struc­tions: “I want my fu­neral to take place at Colombeyles-Deux-Eglises (his home in Lor­raine, an hour’s drive from Paris). If I die else­where, my body must be brought home, with­out any pub­lic cer­e­mony.

“My grave will be the one in which my daugh­ter Anne lies and where one day my wife too will lie. In­scrip­tion. Charles de Gaulle 1890…”

He was too great a man to be al­lowed a pri­vate fu­neral ac­cord­ing to his wishes. Which were rightly ig­nored.

His death was not made pub­lic till 10 Novem­ber. Prime Min­is­ter Indira Gandhi ar­rived in Paris on 11 Novem­ber to par­tic­i­pate in the fu­neral cer­e­mony the next day. I ac­com­pa­nied her. The memo­rial ser­vice was or­gan­ised at the his­toric Notre-Dame cathe­dral. The at­ten­dance was as im­pres­sive as that for John F. Kennedy. A re­cep­tion was held by Pres­i­dent Ge­orge Pom­pi­dou at the Élysée Palace, the of­fi­cial res­i­dence of the Pres­i­dents of France. Mrs Gandhi, Am­bas­sador Chat­ter­jee and I were at the re­cep­tion.

In 2004, I, as Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs Min­is­ter, rep­re­sented In­dia at Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan’s fu­neral ser­vice, held at the Cathe­dral in Wash­ing­ton.

Pres­i­dent Charles de Gaulle was too great a man to be al­lowed a pri­vate fu­neral ac­cord­ing to his wishes. Which were rightly ig­nored.

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