"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 June 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Bring Out Yer Dead



If it's true that you know people by the quality of their enemies, we hardly recognize American journalism these days. Shifting loyalties and financial accountability may explain the unwillingness of today's pressmen to name living villains. But how do we account for the declining quality of the thug obituary? From tinpot dictator to political gangbanger to segregationist troglodyte, scoundrels whose passing would once have prompted editors to shout, "The bloody dog is dead!" are now quietly wheeled into the next world with eulogies cautious enough to have been written by a funeral director who never met the deceased. Has the snickering teenager at the back of the funeral parlor gone all adult and serious on us?

Part of the problem may be the tired, albeit distinguished, form of the obituary itself. Writing obituaries has long been journalism's home-during-wartime job, held by young reporters learning the ropes and older editors phasing themselves into retirement. Nearly every working writer has penned at least one. Many have found solace in the stolid expectations of the form: summary statement, details of death, critical biography — that last written well in advance, if you're lucky or well-staffed. Major obituaries fulfill a publication's reportorial and editorial obligations in one tidy article. In the papers of record, they are among the best remembered and most requested articles.

Today's page-one obituary not only suffers in comparison, it manages to do so in the most uninteresting way possible, accentuating the failings of the old way of doing things and ignoring its advantages. Like a teacher striking the lectern to bring sleeping students to ram-rod attention, the death of Syria's longtime president Hafez el-Assad on June 11 led to a mini-window of interest in all things Syrian. As issues of secession and regional stability bubbled to the surface, American news organizations put on their gray suits and felt hats and took a first stab at defining Assad's historical impact. The toothless eulogies and conflicting messages that resulted couldn't fail to depress readers with this reflection: Major obituaries no longer report on the news or shape opinion, they reflect the tenor of their times and the timid culture of the newsroom.



That's the bad news. The good news is we may be able to blame Nixon. Richard Nixon's death in 1994 was a watershed in recent obituary writing. Early broadcast reports asserted that the American people had forgiven Nixon for Watergate and called for a reconsideration of the ex-President's entire career from Alger Hiss to Beijing — the final steps in a decades-long reclamation project headed with desperate, oily charm by Nixon himself. Considering the more-you-look/more-you-cringe progression of Nixon's professional life, the trend toward what President Clinton called "judging President Nixon on... his entire life and career" was a barbed gift at best. But it's worth noting that both 1996 presidential candidates received a considerable boost by adopting just such a strategy in their eulogies. In that sense, Nixon won his last debate. That it wasn't televised undoubtedly helped.

What amounted to a backlash came from a press corps heavy on reporters who had cut their teeth covering Watergate and Nixon's White House. Hunter S. Thompson's graveyard philippic "He Was a Crook," published in Rolling Stone as part of a suite of reminiscences, typified this undying bitterness. Thompson and Nixon followed ominously similar career paths after the early 1970s, and as a result, reading "He Was a Crook" feels like walking in on a particularly ugly performance of The Sunshine Boys. But Thompson's call to judge Nixon by the criminal actions and monstrous personality for which he was rightfully condemned in life (and to launch his body into an open sewage canal) at least had the virtue of conviction.



Unfortunately, this was to be the last of the two-fisted thug obits. Thompson acknowledged his article's debt to one of the most notorious and effective obituaries ever written — H.L Mencken's evisceration of William Jennings Bryan. Seventy-five years after publication, Mencken's smashed-beer-bottle prose retains its pop:

Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him in contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. ...He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.

Mencken's writing articulated Bryan's life in terms of its broader implications. While some matched Mencken's anger, none of the writers about Nixon, including Thompson, came close to touching on such a broader perspective. As a result, the controversy surrounding how best to record Nixon's passing served as a Pandora's coffin, calling into question the standards brought to obituaries without providing a viable alternative. Major obituaries since Nixon reflect this uncertainty, drifting across the page like so many participants in a plastic duck race. Saigon Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan — barbarian or media victim? George Wallace — manipulative demagogue or political reformer? Deng Xiaoping — did he send in the tanks or did the tanks run over him, too? Even the death of a Central Casting heavy like Pol Pot serves mainly to bring out party poopers looking to fill in biographical gaps.



If a death can't be tied into any current news story (an increasingly frequent circumstance, given that modern-day rogues are more likely to enjoy Pinochet-length retirements than to commit timely suicides in their bunkers), obituaries tend to wallow in their structural shortcomings. In the previous century, great men were portrayed as reflections of the national character. Even an eighth grade history report challenge like Rutherford B. Hayes was proof of the nation's unique opportunities for advancement. The biography portion of today's obituary emphasizes celebrity status over contributions to history. Instead of describing a life in terms of participating in great events, many obituaries give each phase of a life equal consideration. The emphasis on the redemption sought by an aging Nixon or Wallace reflects a VH-1 Behind the Music approach to obituary writing, placing life into discrete acts of ascendancy, rule, fall, and redemption. And until drug abuse starts to kill presidents as effectively as it does drummers, the long lives afforded to those fit to serve means more legacies out of balance. If Charles Lindbergh's obituary were written today it would no doubt elevate the conservationist leanings of his later years to the level of his world-changing contributions to air travel or the unsettling crisis of national character that came when he spent time before World War II making googly-eyes with Goering.

Many publications further denude obituaries by spreading their editorial function over a suite of articles. What remains in the obituary itself evenly distributes statements of indictable fact next to corresponding positive events, or well-defined context of political expediency under which pretty much anything can be forgiven. In terms of putting a spin on one's legacy, it hasn't been this beneficial to do rotten things since kings and emperors employed a country's entire literate workforce. Don't expect hope from online magazines, which are usually defined by the notion of competing opinions and endless argument. At best, placing a strongly reasoned obituary on-line is seen as less an important statement of record than a marginalized opinion finding its proper level.

As large publications struggle with how to present major obituaries, smaller ones fight to present any obituaries at all. More newspapers than ever are considering a move toward paid obituaries, something large newspapers offer to avoid space and manpower demands. Some programs allow survivors of the deceased to write the article themselves. While most see this as an abdication of the paper's traditional role, we see a huge opportunity to revive the tradition of the thug obituary. Because your friends may not pay to give you a sendoff, but your enemies undoubtedly will. Last words on a life are too important to be left to Alan King or the deceased's cousin Steve anyway. Leave the tributes to the living, sell the obituary to the highest bidder of bad repute, and give this lost art form the shot in the arm it needs. Otherwise, we may as well leave it to the deceased to concoct first drafts of their own Nixonian redemptions. They say dead men tell no tales. Let's keep it that way.

courtesy of 40th Street Black
picturesTerry Colon

40th Street Black