If obituaries were ranked by resumes we would have all been spared the drama played out in the news media last week. If obituaries were ranked by resumes, the true heroes would be the first to be noticed by dedicated reporters intent on keeping the world informed. If obituaries were ranked by resumes, there indeed could sometimes be questions as to who was best in life and who was only a runner-up. However there would be no question at all that the revolting amount of coverage surrounding the demise of a 39-year-old drug-taking, obviously deeply troubled, bimbette was out of all proportion to her accomplishments which indeed seem to have been based mostly, if not only, on her bodily proportions.
Perhaps the absurdity of the press coverage surrounding the death of heiress Anna Nicole Smith would not have been so evident if America had not lost during this week the great Harvard historian and inner advisor to President John F. Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
He was not of my political party, we agreed on very little, nor was he tall, yet still I salute him as a man of great stature. When I last spoke with him, a little less than a year ago, his voice was raspy and his breath sounded shallow, but nevertheless he was full of his usual wit and charm. He apologized to me for being too frail at 88 years old to travel from his home in New York City to attend my father’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. He needn’t have done so, I fully understood, but he did nevertheless and he did so with exceeding aplomb, so much so that I rued that I did not have my audio recorder rolling so that his words could have been saved for others to hear:
“There are only three things that are truly important now in this world, Caspar, and those are America, Harvard and Shakespeare, in any order you choose.”
Now there was class! Both Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Caspar Weinberger attended Harvard and both were member of the Class of 1938. They did not care much for each other’s political persuasions, but they did indeed respect each other and when they disagreed they did so in a civilized and gentlemanly manner.
I recall particularly the last Harvard reunion that both attended in 2005. It was their 65th and at Harvard that signifies the formal end of reunion years, probably to void the unfortunate circumstance of seeing yourself as the last remaining class member, a party of one, and which can, of course, be no party at all.
It was my 35th reunion, so as the younger man I did the driving for Dad. His reunion dinner was in the basement of the Boston Pops Auditorium. There were only two tables assigned to the Class of ’38 as so few classmates remained in the world and even fewer had accepted the invitation to be in Cambridge for the event. Dr. Schlesinger could have chosen the other table away from Cap, his nemesis often on the world political stage, but he did not, perhaps recognizing that there was a certain honor of being near another fellow classmate who had accomplished so much even if the rhetoric and political positions were so opposite in form and belief.
As I recall, they had a very pleasant evening and enjoyed each other’s conversation realizing that they each had nothing left to prove or defend. They had both said what they wished to say on many a public stage and in many a literary tome. But on that night, none of it mattered at all. They were happy just to be remaining on the increasingly bare platform reserved for America’s finest men and women. They were both American giants and both were such a credit to the oldest university in America. For once, it seemed to me, they just bathed in that knowledge alone.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was indeed a liberal, and many of his views were anathema to my father and to me, but he was a pleasant liberal. He made his arguments without a vitriolic approach. He was indeed a man of letters. He wrote more then twenty books and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Similar to my father, Arthur was vitally interested in the arts as much as in government. While in the White House as Kennedy’s advisor he still found time to write reviews of movies for Show magazine.
He said what he meant, admitting that he was mistaken not mention in his Pulitzer prize-winning book, “The Age of Jackson,” anything about Jackson’s brutality to the American Indians. He suffered for his remarks concerning “Afro-centrism,” which provoked great challenge in the educational community particularly when he said basically that it was wrong for African Americans to claim superiority to others and demand that their separate identity be honored throughout America.
But, he did not back down: “What the hell,” he said when questioned about his attack on multiculturalism. “You have to call them as you see them.”
And so he did which was a part of his strength. In death he was ignored in all but the most cultured media who remembered him a bit, but even on their front pages the news was about what would keep them apparently economically viable: stories about a former sex-bomb who took too many pills and who died too young.
How then can this same media which runs most of America’s major communications ever decry the citizens they have basically produced and molded?…Citizens who are seemingly uninterested for the most part in real world news, in real world problems, in improving the globe and the humanity living upon it, citizens apparently interested in only glitz, supposed glamour and hopelessly tragic intrigue at the lowest levels?
Yes, if obituaries were only ranked by the truth of one’s accomplishments, the glittering media “stars” would be left in the obscurity they deserve while the worthy would be retained in our sights forever.