Why Are Dead Conservatives Fair Game But Dead Liberals Canonized?

Different ways of remembering Edward Kennedy and William Safire.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The recent death of Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, hit the nation hard. "The last lion of the Senate," as more than one approving memorial essay described him was, in the secular sense, canonized for the many good works he accomplished during his lifetime. It was, in a collective sense, considered bad taste to dwell upon his more public failings—which I will not recap in this space—as anything more than a part of the overall narrative of his life.

As a matter of decorum, it is more than appropriate to consider the balance of a public figure's life in determining their place in history. Very few people are all good or all bad; their lives are the sum of their failings as well as their accomplishments and it is a mistake, in my judgment, to dwell too much on either.

In politics and modern journalism this view seems a trifle one sided, as my new bloleague Jamie Stiehm demonstrates here on the Thomas Jefferson Street blog in her brief essay marking the passage of the New York Times ' William Safire, who Sunday "shuffled off this mortal coil."

A man of letters, an expert on the English language, a novelist, a pioneering pundit and, for some time the only conservative voice on the Times' op-ed pages, Stiehm wants to be sure that no one forgets that Safire was once, horror of horrors, a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon. "Don't let it be forgot that Nixon paved the path Safire took to the New York Times. Nor should we forget that as a columnist he wrote apologias for Nixon, even to the end," she excoriates.

As a man of the right, Safire is apparently fair game for everything and anything people want to say to mark his passing, as though his association with Nixon was somehow a black stain that could never be removed from his life. It was not, nor did it need to be.

There is, despite what some journalists would have people believe, a decidedly political and boorish cast to the way political legacies are established once someone passes from the seen. At least in part for ideological reasons the life of the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice—a liberal—is defined by his work as a civil rights activist and jurist; for the second—a conservative—it will most assuredly lead with the controversy surrounding his confirmation. The passing of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, another liberal, focused on many of his successes but glossed over his misconduct of the war in Vietnam, arguably in an effort to put it in the context of his entire life. The eventual passing of Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, will almost certainly focus on the War in Iraq while ignoring his decades of public service in various capacities as well as his success in business, where he was at least McNamara's equal if not his better.

Returning to Nixon, there are those who heaped scorn on Nixon during the course of his life, at his death and even unto this day, with the opprobrium handed down from generation to generation as some sort of important cultural treasure. Rather than being a part of the overall narrative of his life, as it should be, Nixon's political enemies still seek a "pound of flesh" for Alger Hiss and Helen Gahagan Douglas by making Watergate the only standard by which he is measured, that he must consistently be identified as "the only U.S. president to have resigned from office."

The defense in this regard is that it is a matter of historical import; if this were true than we would, even now, see consistent references to William Jefferson Clinton as "only the second president in U.S. history to have been impeached" just as Andrew Johnson was referred to, pre-Clinton, as "the only U.S president to have been impeached."

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