Obama will skip Nancy Reagan's funeral to attend SXSW festival

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech at the SXSW festival in Texas next week — on the same day as Nancy Reagan's funeral.

U.S. president scheduled to deliver SXSW Interactive keynote speech in Austin, Texas

Many on Twitter seem to think the president is skipping Nancy Reagan's funeral to attend the SXSW Music Festival. He'll be delivering a speech at SXSW Interactive, not quite the same. (Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama is taking some heat today over his decision to follow through with a speaking engagement at this year's SXSW Interactive festival — the largest event of its kind for marketing executives to exchange business cards over free booze and barbecue.

Billed as "a conversation about civic engagement in the 21st century" between Obama and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith, the keynote event was met widely with excitement when it was announced in a post on the Austin, Texas-based festival's website March 3.

But then, three days later, former U.S. president's wife Nancy Reagan died.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation announced Monday that it would be hosting a private funeral on March 11 for Reagan at her husband's presidential library in California, prompting White House officials to quickly confirm that Michelle Obama would be in attendance.

Nothing was said of the president's intentions, however, until Tuesday.

"The president will not attend," said U.S. Press Secretary Josh Earnest when asked about Reagan's funeral at a White House briefing. "The president is travelling in Texas."

American news outlets were quick to point out why Obama would be in Texas, and that his SXSW speech was scheduled to take place on the day of Reagan's funeral.

Twitter outrage has ensued.

Much of the criticism Obama is facing from Republican politicians and bloggers is about how he plans to go "party" with "hipsters" on the day of Reagan's funeral, but it should be noted that the SXSW festival is divided into three distinct sub-festivals: Interactive, Film and Music.

The SXSW interactive conference consists mainly of presentations, panels and networking mixers focused on "cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity."

While the interactive component of the festival has earned a less-than-favourable reputation for being lame and rife with obnoxious marketing types in recent years, it's not the same thing as the SXSW Music festival centred on band showcases.

The music festival does contain some conference elements, however, one of them this year being a keynote speech delivered by Michelle Obama.

"On Wednesday, March 16, First Lady Michelle Obama comes to SXSW Music to discuss the Let Girls Learn initiative, which aims to break barriers for the 62 million girls around the world who are not in school today, more than half of whom are adolescent," reads a description of the event.

SXSW Music is best known for its concerts, however, which take place following SXSW Interactive when all of the swag-toting cool dads have left to make way for masses of indie-rock hipsters (who likely know Reagan best from pop-culture parodies of her Just Say No campaign.)

Still, many on Twitter are conflating Obama's keynote speech with the culture of music festivals, some to give the president props for choosing SXSW over Reagan's funeral.

Others are pointing out that Obama had already been slated to speak at SXSW well before Reagan died, and that his actions aren't meant to be disrespectful.

Indeed, the Obamas sent out the following statement after news of Reagan's death started circulating Sunday:

"Nancy Reagan once wrote that nothing could prepare you for living in the White House. She was right, of course. But we had a head start, because we were fortunate to benefit from her proud example, and her warm and generous advice."

Gawker, for its part, posited that the president simply doesn't care about appearances at this point.

"Obama does not give a … anymore, according to a White House briefing, and certainly doesn't care about Nancy Reagan's funeral," writes Sam Biddle. "Instead ... he'll be headed to Texas for the annual horror-confluence of indie music and startup culture known as SXSW."

"I can say with complete certainty that I would rather go to a generic funeral than make a third trip to SXSW, but would I rather go to this specific funeral, for the astrology-obsessed wife of a historically bad president?" he continued. "Hard to say — I would probably choose neither and just stay home under the covers."​

Not uncommon for White House reps to attend funerals on behalf of presidents

Obama was criticized in a similar fashion a few weeks ago for opting to attend the visitation for Justice Antonin Scalia instead of going to his funeral.

The White House representative at that funeral was vice president Joe Biden, who had a personal relationship with Scalia dating back to the 1980s.

As ABC notes, it's more common for first ladies to attend the funerals of former first ladies than it is for presidents.

Neither Obama nor former President Bill Clinton went to former first lady Betty Ford's funeral when she died in 2011, though Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and former first lady Rosalynn Carter did.

The last time a sitting president attended a former first lady's funeral was actually in 1962, when then-President John F. Kennedy went to the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?