Not since Winston Churchill died in 1965 has the United States mourned a foreign with as much outpouring of emotion as the death of Yitzhak Rabin.
Moments after Shabbat ended in the nation’s capital, an emotional President Clinton emerged from the Oval Office to announce a period of national mourning for the slain Israeli leader.
The U.S. media followed the story continuously, with the major networks providing live coverage of the funeral Monday.
“Nothing could exceed what they have done,” said longtime Jewish activist Hyman Bookbinder. “I am absolutely amazed at the extent of tribute to Yitzhak Rabin and to Israel.”
In a move usually reserved for the most senior U.S. officials and leaders – most recently former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – the American flags at all federal buildings were lowered to half-staff in memory of Rabin.
An exception was made for former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after he was shot dead by an assassin in 1981 and now, for Rabin.
In a deeply personal speech delivered Saturday evening in the White House Rose Garden, Clinton, on the verge of tears, praised Rabin as “my partner and my friend.”
“I admired him and I loved him very much. Because words cannot express my true feelings, let me just say, shalom, chaver. Goodbye, friend.”
Clinton delivered his remarks on a site ripe with history for the slain prime minister.
It was on that site that Rabin initially greeted Clinton before they moved to the South Lawn before the historic Rabin-Yasser Arafat handshake.
Since that September 1993 day, Clinton has greeted Rabin along with King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on numerous occasions at the same site.
From the moment the tragic news was delivered to the president, official Washington began an unprecedented operation to bestow the greatest honor upon Rabin.
From the White House to the State Department to Capitol Hill and across town to the Israeli Embassy, people in all levels of government rose to honor the man who had moved toward peace with his enemies.
Clinton led a delegation of more than 100 to Israel to attend Rabin’s funeral. The delegation included former Presidents Bush and Carter as well as secretary of states from the last four administrations.
Dozens of members of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R- Kan.) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), attended the funeral, along with American Jewish leaders and representatives from other faiths.
“I can’t imagine another world leader whose untimely death would have brought such an outpouring of American support,” said Steven Grossman, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who accompanied the president.
“The entire leadership, from both the executive and legislative branches, is here to show the U.S. will redouble its efforts to support those who take bold risks for peace,” Grossman said in a phone interview from Jerusalem after the funeral.
For Grossman, the special closeness between the two nations was best illustrated by a gesture of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who came to the funeral with his son, Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.).
Kennedy offered his condolences to Leah Rabin after her husband’s burial. He then went to the prime minister’s fresh gravesite with his son, where he put some earth he had taken from the gravesite of his slain brothers, former president John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
“The tragedies of these two families” provide an extraordinary “link between Israel and the United States,” said Grossman.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, met with Rabin on two separate occasions last week in Israel.
Hoenlein, who has spent time with both Rabin and Clinton during the past two years, said, “They frequently talked of each other with real genuine feelings.”
What became a warm relationship began in a small suite at the Madison Hotel in Washington during the 1992 presidential campaign.
Reporters watched as the seasoned, elder statesman sized up the much younger and fresh-faced presidential contender from Arkansas.
It was clear Rabin was trying to figure out how much deference to pay the possible future U.S. president while not offending the sitting president, George Bush.
Meanwhile, as media offices were inundated with statements praising Rabin this week, TV networks geared up for unprecedented live coverage of the funeral.
All three networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – sent their senior news anchors to Jerusalem to cover the funeral. CNN and C-Span also provided live coverage.
“There was not a lot of soul-searching,” David Bohrman, NBC’s executive producer of news specials, said of the decision to extensively cover the Rabin assassination.
“This is precisely the right thing to do,” he said, adding that the decision was based on the importance of “the peace talks, the U.S.-Israel relationship and the history of the region, including the assassination of Sadat.”
As he watched the funeral coverage on Monday, Bohrman said he could not “recall seeing a similar site of all the major world leaders gathered in this forum since the Kennedy assassination.”
Hoenlein said. “I wonder today what other leader – except for, God forbid, if the president of the United States was assassinated – would get such an outpouring from so many world leaders and live broadcasts on all TV stations.”
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the only Jewish Republican senator and presidential candidate, said, “This shows the strong bond that is both emotional and substantive between the American people and the Israeli people.”
Specter declined an invitation to travel to the funeral, saying that he preferred to attend local vigils in the Philadelphia area.
All told, 22 members of the House and 17 members of the Senate, including seven of the nine Jewish senators, attended the funeral.
As Rabin was laid to rest in Israel on Monday, one could not help but be struck by the thousands of flags in the nation’s capital flying at half-staff.
“It’s an incredible mix of emotion,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington media consultant who is a former Clinton aide.
“It’s really something to see my country mourn nationally for a foreign Jewish leader,” he said.
As an American Jew who worked in the White House,” he said “it’s another layer of emotion to see the outpouring of mourning from mainstream Americans.”