There are few ways to get a tough message to the president of the United States, especially one who brags that he doesn't follow the news.
Critics of the policies of President Bush found a way to use the church pulpit to talk directly to him when they delivered eulogies at the funeral for Coretta Scott King, widow of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was mourned last week at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta.
Former President Carter used his eulogy to recall how MLK had been subjected to "secret government surveillance" during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Carter's reference was understood by everyone because the current commander in chief, sitting right behind the pulpit, has admitted that he ordered secret spying on Americans without court approval in an effort to rout potential terrorists.
Carter also made a pointed reference to the Bush administration's bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina.
"The struggle for equality is not over," Carter told the congregation. "We only have to recall the color of the faces in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi -- those most devastated by Katrina -- to know there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans."
It was a double whammy for Bush.
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin recalled how King had spoken out against the "senselessness of war with a voice that was heard from the tin roofs of Soweto to the bomb shelters of Baghdad."
Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, also took some swipes at Bush, drawing loud applause from the mainly black mourners in the packed church when he said, "There are millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, millions more, but no more for the poor."
The comment drew head shakes from Bush and his father as they sat behind the pulpit.
Lowery also noted that the much-touted weapons of mass destruction -- Bush's public rationale for invading Iraq -- were never found. The congregation gave him a standing ovation.
The president spoke of Coretta King's "conviction and strength." And he said she was "one of the most admired Americans of our time," adding: "She is rightly mourned and she is deeply missed."
Former President Clinton -- always a big hit with black audiences -- was not about to breach his great new friendship with the Bush family by sniping at current administration policies.
Clinton spoke of King's children, saying, "We know they have to bear the burden of their mother's and father's legacy."
When his turn came, Bush's father, former President George H. W. Bush, took umbrage at Lowery's cutting remarks about his son. Noting that Lowery's address had been in rhyme, Bush senior said poet "Maya Angelou has nothing to worry about."
Turning to Lowery, he said: "Don't quit your day job."
The political byplay reminded me of a 1967 church service at Bruton Parish, an Episcopal church in Williamsburg, Va., with President Johnson and his wife in the congregation.
Rev. Pinckney Cotesworth-Lewis denounced the Vietnam War from the pulpit and Johnson -- a captive audience -- was livid. When the Johnsons were leaving the church, Lady Bird Johnson, an Episcopalian, told the minister tartly: "We enjoyed the choir."
There is somewhat of a controversy on whether President Bush should have been criticized at the solemn church service, just as there was an uproar when Johnson got an earful about Vietnam.
I think that MLK would have agreed that when the issues are as important as war and peace, poverty and human suffering, there's a duty to speak up, no matter where or when.
King's own life provides a model for that approach. He led civil rights marches in the South when they were dangerous to life and limb for those -- black or white -- who joined in the long struggle for equality.
On Aug. 28, 1963, he delivered his immortal "I Have a Dream" address at the Lincoln Memorial during the landmark civil rights march on Washington. In the evening, King was invited to a reception at the White House and President Kennedy greeted him with a handshake and the words: "I have a dream."
As the nation fell deeper into the Vietnam quagmire, King did not abandon the struggle for civil rights but also took up the cause of peace in Vietnam.
Yes, I believe the winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize would have approved heartily of those who used his widow's funeral as a platform in the cause of justice and peace.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
© 2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer