Misapplying the protocol for the death of private figures to public ones

Larry Sabato is a political analyst who is frequently quoted in the media, usually in the role of prognosticator about who is likely to win seats in Congress. Following the death of John McCain, Glenn Greenwald highlighted a tweet of Sabato’s that has become a routine sentiment following the death of well-known establishment politicians.

Put me down as one of the ‘bitter and vicious’. It is extraordinary how it is mainly with politicians that we are expected to suspend criticisms upon their death and let a wave of praises go by unchallenged. You are far more likely to get an honest and balanced appraisal of the life of a dead writer or actor or musician than you are of a politician. This may be because the media establishment feels more subservient to politicians than to those other public figures. But those who claim that we should ‘keep politics out’ in the immediate wake of the death are in fact committing a deeply political act. By focusing only on the good and ignoring all the bad, they are enabling a form of historical cleansing that normalizes awful actions.

This happens all the time and Greenwald has to remind us each time of the distinction between the deaths of private and public figures and what is appropriate at private ceremonies and in public remembrances. In 2011, following the death of Christopher Hitchens, Greenwald looked at the wave of fawning eulogies that followed and wrote that when people apply the standards that apply to the deaths of private figures to public figures and withhold all criticisms, they end up effectively endorsing the positions held by the public figures, however odious those might be. He began by looking at what the almost uncritical adulation given to Ronald Reagan following his death in 2004.

This happened because of an unhealthy conflation of appropriate post-death etiquette for private persons and the etiquette governing deaths of public figures. They are not and should not be the same. We are all taught that it is impolite to speak ill of the dead, particularly in the immediate aftermath of someone’s death. For a private person, in a private setting, that makes perfect sense. Most human beings are complex and shaped by conflicting drives, defined by both good and bad acts. That’s more or less what it means to be human. And — when it comes to private individuals — it’s entirely appropriate to emphasize the positives of someone’s life and avoid criticisms upon their death: it comforts their grieving loved ones and honors their memory. In that context, there’s just no reason, no benefit, to highlight their flaws.

But that is completely inapplicable to the death of a public person, especially one who is political. When someone dies who is a public figure by virtue of their political acts — like Ronald Reagan — discussions of them upon death will be inherently politicized. How they are remembered is not strictly a matter of the sensitivities of their loved ones, but has substantial impact on the culture which discusses their lives. To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems — enforced by misguided (even if well-intentioned) notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts — is not a matter of politeness; it’s deceitful and propagandistic. To exploit the sentiments of sympathy produced by death to enshrine a political figure as Great and Noble is to sanction, or at best minimize, their sins. Misapplying private death etiquette to public figures creates false history and glorifies the ignoble.

He then went on to apply a critical look at Hitchens’s life.

I rarely wrote about Hitchens because, at least for the time that I’ve been writing about politics (since late 2005), there was nothing particularly notable about him. When it came to the defining issues of the post-9/11 era, he was largely indistinguishable from the small army of neoconservative fanatics eager to unleash ever-greater violence against Muslims: driven by a toxic mix of barbarism, self-loving provincialism, a sense of personal inadequacy, and, most of all, a pity-inducing need to find glory and purpose in cheering on military adventures and vanquishing some foe of historically unprecedented evil even if it meant manufacturing them.

Nobody who writes about politics for decades will be entirely free of serious error, but how serious the error is, whether it reflects on their character, and whether they came to regret it, are all vital parts of honestly describing and assessing their work. To demand its exclusion is an act of dishonesty.

Nor should anyone be deterred by the manipulative, somewhat tyrannical use of sympathy: designed to render any post-death criticisms gauche and forbidden. Those hailing Hitchens’ greatness are engaged in a very public, affirmative, politically consequential effort to depict him as someone worthy of homage. That’s fine: Hitchens, like most people, did have admirable traits, impressive accomplishments, genuine talents and a periodic willingness to expose himself to danger to report on issues about which he was writing. But demanding in the name of politeness or civility that none of that be balanced or refuted by other facts is to demand a monopoly on how a consequential figure is remembered, to demand a license to propagandize — exactly what was done when the awful, power-worshipping TV host, Tim Russert, died, and we were all supposed to pretend that we had lost some Great Journalist, a pretense that had the distorting effect of equating Russert’s attributes of mindless subservience to the powerful with Good Journalism

We should never forget that how we discuss the lives of public figures in the immediate aftermath of their death is as political an act as how we discussed their actions while they were alive. Paul Blest provides a more balanced look at McCain’s career and concludes:

McCain’s political legacy should be largely that of someone who frequently and loudly toyed with doing the right thing and yet decided to do the other thing almost every single time, and who was a willing and active participant in the destruction of one country and helping the racist, authoritarian right rise in his own. What John McCain’s legacy will be, however, is the one crafted by the reporters and peers who loved him, who bought hook, line, and sinker that McCain was a different kind of politician, and not the fraud he actually was.

As I frequently do following the death of public figures, here once again is the Eulogy Song from the Australian sketch comedy troupe The Chasers. (Language advisory)


  1. raym says

    It will be fascinating to see what happens when trump finally has the decency to piss off and die. I like to imagine vast, worldwide celebrations, the bigliest celebrations in the history of forever!

  2. jazzlet says

    It is dishonest to forget the damage that some people have done just because they are dead.

    I felt only happiness at the death of Margaret Thatcher and agree with Elis Costello on the subject.

  3. says

    I note that McCain often spoke out against torture -- in the sense of “it sucks, believe me” -- yet he never really accomplished anything as far as reducing the US government’s use of torture at Gitmo.

    He was a maverick who took many unprincipled stands.

  4. Timothy says

    “Put me down as one of the ‘bitter and vicious’. It is extraordinary how it is mainly with politicians that we are expected to suspend criticisms upon their death and let a wave of praises go by unchallenged.”

    Me too, Mano. Me too.

    Also, this:

    “This is the story of the real John McCain, the one who has been hiding in plain sight. It is the story of a man who has consistently put his own advancement above all else, a man willing to say and do anything to achieve his ultimate ambition: to become commander in chief, ascending to the one position that would finally enable him to outrank his four-star father and grandfather.”


  5. cartomancer says

    Margaret Thatcher was an unusual one, in that pretty much every British memorial about the black-souled old witch began with “she was a very divisive figure…”. They continued in this vein for some time, before bringing up how much some people admired her and most people hated her. They finished by reminding us how much people’s opinions differed regarding her policies and actions. She was so vile that nobody, even the Tory press, could remain blindly eulogistic, however hard they tried.

    There were street parties in Northern ex-mining towns. The ex-miners were more than willing to dig down to the centre of the earth and hand her over to Satan in person.

  6. EigenSprocketUK says

    Margaret Thatcher, during her frail dotage, did enjoy a certain amount of unwarranted immunity from the worst criticism from many quarters. Once she was safely dead, then “a very divisive figure” became one of the nicer things to say about her. But telling the nasty truth about her evil, maleficent, and gimlet-eyed soul has, I’m sad to say, not prevented her from still being a hero to her successors.

  7. A Rash Anion says

    I think it’s one thing to say “rest in peace” when someone died, and fairly expected even if you didn’t like them. But the idea that because someone died, you can only speak of their legacy in a positive way, is a very bad thing. Even politicians and leaders with whom I agree on many things also have done bad things, and if we are going to discuss their legacy and what they did over their lives, we need to be frank and honest about things. McCain advocated for policies I disagree with enormously, and these policies caused enormous harm, pain, and death to innocent people. The fact that he passed away doesn’t change that.

    Now, if I were friends with one of his kids and we were drinking coffee after the funeral, I wouldn’t say this to their face. But in a news article, or in a political discussion, or on a comment section online talking about his legacy, it’s a different context entirely.

  8. says

    A favorite quote from Hitchens regarding the death of Jerry Falwell: “If they gave him an enema, they could’ve buried him in a matchbox”.

  9. mikey says

    Bitter and vicious is what he deserves, alive or dead. He was in it for one person, John McCain. If, while alive, you are an asshole, when dead you are a dead asshole. He is dead, but the harm he did to us all festers on.

  10. says

    Those who blather “respect the office!” because Annoying Orange is pResident are now whining “respect the dead!” and want to silence valid criticism and evaluation of McCain.

    They are, of course, the same ones who refused to “repect the office” when Obama was president, who happily engage in character assassination of those who can no longer speak for themselves -- especially those who would have evicerated them with words were they still alive.

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