I'm watching all the Ted Kennedy stuff like everybody else, trying to swallow as many of the tributes as I can get down, as we all do during such ritual outpourings. (Remember when Reagan died? My God, you'd have thought he was Tim Russert!)
I'm willing to believe Kennedy was a really nice guy, a charming colleague and an effective legislative negotiator. And there were several times during his career when I wanted to stand up and cheer at his sturdy and sometimes lonely defense of what seemed to me to be commonsense bedrock liberal positions.
But Kennedy aside—during these slobberfests, I can never help but devilishly wish we still had an H.L. Mencken around—Bill Maher doesn't cut it—who dared to write an obituary like this one, published immediately upon the death of William Jennings Bryan in 1925:
Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity
as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. …
Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant,
bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him
into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company
of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe … that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies,
that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod
like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an
almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all
beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the
dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that
he was not.
The job before democracy is to get rid of such canaille. If it fails, they will devour it.
In his obit, Mencken acknowledged that it is "the national custom to sentimentalize the dead." But it's also our personal obligation to keep it real.