Nobody does celebrity death like the Americans. The British are capable of spectacular one-shot descents into commercial grief; the ceremonial burial honors for Princess Di couldn’t be duplicated anywhere. Where else is there a backdrop like Westminster Abbey? But only in America can a celebrity’s death be a good career move.
Democrats are smiling through their tears, determined not to waste an opportunity and figuring out how to channel grief over the death of Teddy Kennedy into a campaign to save President Obama’s health-care scheme. Sen. Chris Dodd says “maybe Teddy’s passing will remind people once again that we are there to get a job done.”
But maybe not. Moments of synthetic unity rarely last very long. “When the dust settles and the tributes end,” says William Galston, who was a Clinton adviser on domestic policy, “we will be very close to where we were a week ago. I do not think this is a galvanizing moment. The divide is too deep.”
But there’s power in celebrity death. The death of Michael Jackson and the resulting flood of tears is likely to stand for a long time as the standard for how to make death memorable, profitable and fun. There’s talk of an amusement park to be built around Michael’s tomb when the dearly departed moves on to a final resting place at Neverland Ranch. Elvis has Graceland, so why not? The family is feuding just now about the whether and whenever. The smart money in family feuds is always on the faction with actual possession of the body.
The rich tradition of commercial grief is an old one. When Hank Williams, one of the early immortals of country music, died six decades ago so many cars, bicycles, wagons and pickup trucks descended on a backwoods cemetery in Alabama the governor had to call out the National Guard. “Everyone who could croak a note wanted to pluck a guitar or play the fiddle over his grave,” his widow recalled. Six feet under, Hank was so lonesome he could cry.
When someone famous for having done something really important dies, his memory is at risk for similar parody. Washington is awash just now in lugubrious self-congratulations for the “moment of unity” that is said to have descended on the capital in the wake of Teddy’s death. Some people mistake good manners for regrets for having failed to share Teddy’s politics. Other mourners, real, imagined, right and left, are eager to strike heroic poses as old Kennedy pals and confidantes. One pundit recalls that he was once invited to dinner at Chez Kennedy and that the senator even endorsed, sort of, a book he once wrote. Fame in Washington is where you can find a reflection to bask in.
The author of another “remembrance,” anxious to be thought a Kennedy insider, manages to get through a hymn to the senator’s career and character without mentioning Mary Jo Kopechne. The New York Times notes the tragedy at Chappaquiddick Island as merely a “personal embarrassment.” Ted Sorensen, a faithful liege man to the Kennedy family, writes in Time magazine that the significance of the Chappaquiddick “incident” is that it ultimately “ended [Teddy’s] bright prospects for still higher office.” (Miss Kopechne, who is still dead, did not return phone calls for comment.)
No one should be held responsible for what he says at a wedding or a funeral, though President Obama once more demonstrated a community activist’s knowledge of American history with his description of Teddy as the greatest senator in history. You might make an argument that Teddy is the hardest-working since Lyndon B. Johnson, but fans of Daniel Webster and other giants of the Senate would argue that he was not necessarily the best senator in the history of Massachusetts.
Teddy, like celebrities before him, is hardly responsible for over-the-top eulogies by those who are dying, you might say, to croak a note or play the fiddle over his grave. Teddy, facing eternity, turned seriously to his Christian faith for sustenance in his last days, singing hymns with his family, and somewhere over on the Other Side he may be squirming, redeemed by grace but troubled by genuine regret and remorse, wishing he could tell the suck-up artists on this side to knock it off.
Celebrity grief, real and not so real, will pass. A moment always does. The next celebrity death is just around the corner.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.