LEST WE FORGET
Did you hear that Charlie Manson died the other night? If you did, it was no thanks to any news I saw the night that it happened or, for that matter, the night after it happened, and I watched a lot of news those nights, owing to my custom of switching to a news channel during the many commercials which festoon the evening’s football game. Pick your ideology—Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC, and you can even throw in C-SPAN, and…Nada, Zilch, Commandante Zero. He didn’t even make that cavalcade of trivia that scrolls along the bottom of the screen. Susan Collins, Al Franken, John McCain, Charlie Rose. Angela Merkel, Robert Mugabe, Vlad Putin, a merger between two cable outfits, even the death of fifties singer and latter-day ham actress Della Reese-- they were all there, but not the man who at one time was arguably the most recognized man in America. All of this news is very important and interesting (well, maybe except for the cable TV merger), but does it really have to shove an uber-important death out of our minds?
The whole sorry phenomenon calls to mind the single most repulsive post I’ve ever read on the web—and, believe me, I’m setting the bar very high—which came the day that Robin Williams killed himself. America’s self-proclaimed most popular science blogger upbraided his unwashed countrymen for memorializing a third-rate hack comedian when the police had shot dead an unarmed, innocent black kid. News flash: That happens every day. Pick a day, and you’ll find a black kid getting shot by law enforcement to memorialize. Comic talents such as Williams come along once a generation, if you’re lucky, and when they die it’s time to mourn, and, yes, to celebrate them. And if I must play a PC card, bonus points for a teachable moment reminding us that depression is a terrible disease which turns deadly for many people.
And in any case the blogger’s whole premise was so wrong, so obviously, piteously wrong; even on the day he wrote, Ferguson was running neck-and-neck with the death of the great comic, and by the next day, the news trade was back to business as usual. It was all Ferguson, all the time, for a fortnight. Last summer I saw a ninety-minute documentary about Ferguson. I haven’t read a word about Williams since before he was in the ground.
Now nobody this side of Cuckooland wants to celebrate Charlie Manson, but can’t we stop for a minute and remember the dead who said something about us as a nation? Even a ninety-day wonder can help us remember national moments, be they good or bad, goofy or tragic.
Back in the day, I was working radio one New Year’s Day. At the appointed time I aired Howard Cosell’s sports commentary. It was the day that baseball star and mega-humanitarian Roberto Clemente died in an airplane crash. I’ll never forget how Cosell ended his tribute: “I’ve been downstairs watching the Cotton Bowl, a good game with Texas ahead by three. A good game, yes, but they’ll forget who won this game. They won’t forget Bob Clemente.”