Mourning in America
Maybe it’s the number of deaths coming in as fast as the planes dotting the skies around Chicago’s O’Hare airport, but how can you not feel a series of small, but incalculable, losses over those who figured so prominently in our own lives?
The passing of Edward M. (Teddy) Kennedy yesterday followed by a similar announcement on Vanity Fair’s celebrity chronicler, Dominick Dunne in the afternoon and a few weeks back, Special Olympics’ founder and crusader, Eunice Kennedy Shriver along with Sixty Minutes’ impresario Don Hewitt right behind her, and before that “trusted” newsman Walter Cronkite and Sixteen Candle’s director John Hughes, and earlier in the summer, late June, the unbelievable and eerily coincidental deaths of Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett, two megawatt stars so curiously “present” and “vital” that their very loss sent everyone scrambling to examine their own thoughts on the afterlife, has left a kind of disquieting malaise.
I recalled an article I came across recently assuring readers that if it seemed as though quite a few luminaries had died this summer, it was not your enfeebled imagination deceiving you, but certifiable fact. Could it be that there are simply more “celebrated” types filling out our culture where nothing and nobody is ever enough and where former reality stars, secret-spilling servants, or bloviating die-hards with a blog and an attitude are elevated to a status worthy of ink, air time and attention?
Or is it, as Monica Hesse suggested in the Washington Post: “Celebrity deaths are always so nostalgic. The famous often seem to die in their prime because that’s how we remember them, frozen on our televisions, in rerun. It’s always unexpected, even when we’ve been expecting it.”
I was surprised to learn, or embarrassingly naive not to know, that there is now a service CelebrityDeathBeeper.com, which has more than 20,000 subscribers waiting to be e-mailed when a famous person shuffles off this mortal coil. Is all of this oversharing minute by excruciating minute just the least bit overwrought?
I tend to shun commentary preferring to hover near and around the quieter and gentler pursuits, like the love, appreciation and sheer hypnotic pleasures of art, beauty, music, culture, manners, history, literature, and yes, a bit of a mythologized world of quiet, order and civility where even in the darkest of times, one can easily wrap everything in a glisten of gossamer, obscuring imperfection, masking flaws, hiding what you might suspect or even know, but need not say. Are we so failed in ourselves and our own insignificance that we need to enlarge, compulsively amplify or air it all on Oprah, twitter it bottomless or demonize the dead without scholarship or regard?
We are human after all. Permit us our foibles and lend some forgiveness. Most especially now, when many are bereft, saddened, and even dismayed at the realization of their own dwindling time line. You will read what you will, finding refuge in those sympathetic to your views, and muttering under your breath at those who, you can only surmise, as bearing the brunt of an uncouth and blazingly boorish stupidity.
Sadly, I myself, forgot that small piece of wisdom earlier this morning when I came on line for the start of the day, coffee in hand, to read and revel in the memories of the last of the Kennedy brothers, a dynasty that I came to learn was so pervasive and influential that the whole of my own life was indirectly affected by the presence of either John, Bobby or Teddy holding public office for the span of sixty-two consecutive years! That’s a long swath of memories, tragedy, scandal, innuendo, legislation, imagined and real anecdotes and breathtakingly memorable ‘Camelot’ family photos taken on the shores of the Atlantic near the famed white clapboard compound in Hyannis Port where the clan regularly gathered to celebrate, mourn, reassemble.
One moving tribute I came across from life-long Kennedy friend and neighbor, Mike Barnacle, who shared Kennedy’s Irish ancestry, faith in the Roman Catholic church and love of the sea and Cape Cod was, I thought, eloquently touching. I no sooner scrolled down to the last of the heartfelt words reminiscing on his friend through “the fog of memory seven decades deep,” than I was unexpectedly jarred out of my reverie with this decidedly mean-spirited and venomous assault of comments so nasty, snide and repellent, I felt ashamed and somehow tainted. It was as though I’d suddenly been thrust into one of those acrimonious town hall meetings that have taken over our consciousness, television screens, and national pastime.
Here in all its unexpurgated glory was the details, graphically imagined, of Chappaquiddick, the cover-up, the scandal, the life of carousing and women, the ill fated run and loss for the presidency, the supposed perjury at Stephen Smith’s rape trial, the divorce from long-suffering Joan to the remarriage of life-saving Vicki.
Curiously, it has been that same medium, television, that has soothed me back to some semblance of complacency. Charlie Rose, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, editor John Meecham (Newsweek) and reporter Al Hunt (Bloomberg) offering reasoned, thoughtful discourse and insights on a life of fame, flaws and most significantly, redemption.
This post has grown larger than intended, but Kennedy’s death was not the first I’ve felt of this malady that grips the Internet in what, oftentimes, seems, a long, incessant whine of snark, snipe and general displeasure. In truth, it matters not who has left this life. Yes, Kennedy was outsized, part of America’s royalty, but I remember feeling these same sentiments last year when a well known advertising giant left this earth. His name is not important. He was hugely talented, respected, kind and possessed of the traits, good and bad, that complete us all. There was not a whiff of scandal or wrongdoing evidenced in his life, yet strangers and those of opinion were excoriating his name, finding fault that he was no better than a charlatan practicing shameless chicanery in exploiting the poor trusting masses of the downtrodden and weary, enticing them to buy things they didn’t want or need. He was a provocateur. Denounced for his complicity in the selling out of America. No cool Don Draper here. His death was not a memorial or a tribute to a life lived, but an indictment on the criminalizing ills of advertising with plenty of space to air every last inexhaustible thought that entered one’s simple minded brain.
We are blessed to live in a place where we are free to argue, opine, shout, scold, judge, condemn, demonize and vilify to our heart’s content with nary a rustling in the nether world, but is there not a time and place for decorum? Reverence? Respect?
My mother used to admonish her children when tempers flared and tongues befouled, quietly reminding us of a simple, but charitable rule of courtesy:
“If you can’t say anything nice about a person,
don’t say anything at all.”
Photo: Michael Levin. Title: Zibrato. On Italy’s Amalfi Coast, a solitary fisherman patiently waits.