The death of a major political figure these days is an occasion not so much for reflection as for exploitation of the political opportunity or obligations such a death offers. The death of Coretta Scott King is of course exhibit number one. Even before this week's scandalous memorial service we saw President Bush open his State of the Union speech by paying tribute to her, which worked politically because Gov. Tim Kaine, in the Democratic response that followed, seemed to be playing catchup when he began his remarks with a tribute to Mrs. King.
At the Atlanta ceremonies, meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton, once she stopped nodding, noted, "We can carry on the struggle against racism and discrimination." It never ends, you see. Ninety-nine percent of America has probably rejected racism, yet the official line is that racism remains endemic. "We shall overcome" were evidently empty words.
A key word no one uttered in Atlanta was "integration" -- perhaps the single most important concept associated with Martin Luther King before black power and identity politics pushed his goals off the political table. "Equality" was mentioned, but it's a term no one pairs with color-blindness. A half-century of civil rights movement has left us a more color-conscious society than ever. The goal of color-blind integration is all but forgotten.
Just how much so was recently driven home by reactions to the new film, Glory Road, which purportedly chronicles Texas Western's famous all-black starting team that in 1966 defeated an all-white Kentucky team for the NCAA basketball championship. Sports Illustrated last month actually took the press of 40 years ago to task for underplaying the racial dimension. "Newspaper and magazine accounts [of the championship game], read today, make it seem as if an epidemic of color-blindness had struck press row," SI's Gene Menez writes contemptuously about one of the Civil Rights Movement's founding ideals. Naturally, in best Oprah fashion he also defends the movie's factual distortions in the name of a "larger truth" -- as if American blacks hadn't already become a fixture in college and professional basketball well before the 1966 showdown.
Incidentally, I use that last word on purpose. In the current progressive mind, there can be no racial progress unless it's a black on white confrontation in which whitey gets his comeuppance. What if Texas Western had lost?
Such ideologically driven myopia led a number of reviewers of Glory Road, including Roger Ebert, to compare the Texas Western's victory in 1966 to Jackie Robinson's breaking the Major League's color barrier nineteen years earlier. Take your pick: we're either a sick society or a stupid one.
Or both, as the dishonest reactions to the death of Betty Friedan remind us. Read the obituaries in the New York Times or Washington Post and you'd never know that Friedan's women's liberation impulse derived not from any real suburban frustration but from her serious Marxist commitments in college and subsequently. The Post even quotes Friedan biographer Daniel Horowitz without informing readers that he is the one who brought Friedan's Marxist foundations to light. An even greater irony is that a chronic leftist like Friedan essentially came to serve the interests of the privileged intellectual and professional classes. That she might have been playing them for dupes guarantees that the real Betty Friedan will have to remain under wraps. As Judith Shulevitz once put it in response to Horowitz, what would he not being a woman know about Friedan?
There was a recent political death, of former German president Johannes Rau, that barely attracted notice here. Though Rau had been a leading figure the Social Democratic Party (SPD) for more than a quarter century, the N.Y. Times had to rely on the AP for its obituary. Which only figures, given that Rau was a genuine force for reconciliation, whether with Poland or Israel.
I had the good fortune to meet Rau, in 1982, during a six-day junket to West Germany in the midst of a sizzling heat wave. My group of some 20 journalists met with a number of SPD luminaries, including in Bonn with then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and former chancellor Willy Brandt. Those meetings took place in air-conditioned comfort. The real test came in Dusseldorf, seat of North Rhine-Westphalia where Rau was then premier. The meeting room in which we gathered wasn't air-conditioned, as we noticed with alarm on walking into stifling, awful conditions straight out of Death Valley, California. Yet there to greet us was Rau, in long-sleeved white shirt and tie, not a drop of sweat falling from his forehead. Smiling, friendly, relaxed, he knew each of our names as he walked over to shake hands. He proceeded to brief us at length, acting all the while as if for all he knew the room was at a perfect 70 degrees. I don't remember offhand what he said, though I do recall he was being trumpeted as a rising star and likely successor to Schmidt. Right then I knew he had the right stuff. (As it was, he lost against Helmut Kohl in 1987.)
Later I learned one of the secrets to Rau's self-control and pleasant calm. He was the son of a Lutheran minister, and, as the New York Times reported in 1987, "Mr. Rau was long known among fellow Social Democrats as 'Brother Johannes' because of his active involvement in church affairs and his habit of starting off the day with a reading from the Bible."
In other words, he wasn't the sort of person today's New York Times and post-modern culture will bother to commemorate with any delusional fondness.