Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Reading the Obits Today

As a lover of newspapers, I've always enjoyed reading the obituary section. Morbid, you say? Not at all. I view it as the complete opposite: The celebration or chronicling of fascinating lives.
Up here in Maine today -- with the temperatures barely breaking 60 degrees and heavy downpours from the late afternoon on -- I had plenty of time to read two obits in the New York Times, one of which was extremely lengthy.
As someone who did not reach high school until the late '80s, I had little appreciation for who Robert McNamara was other than the secretary of defense during the Vietnam War. His obit read like a history lesson and made me realize how great his influence was. He will go down as one of the most important figures in American history in the 20th century.
I came away from it thinking about what a tragic figure he was -- truly someone out of Shakespearean or Greek tragedy. I needed the perspective of people who were older (which I got in reading Bob Herbert's op-ed in the Times and the excerpt in the obit about a Times' editorial on McNamara from the '90s) to comprehend how reviled he was.
McNamara served as defense secretary for seven years in the '60s and was the principal architect of the Vietnam War. By the late '60s, he realized the war was not winnable but said nothing publicly for almost 30 years. For this, he was excoriated for the lives he could have saved but did not.
Sixteen thousand soldiers died in Vietnam while McNamara was defense chief. That meant 42,000 more died after his tenure -- lives he could have potentially saved by using his stature in the country to denounce the war.
What struck me was the guilt that the man must have lived with for the final 42 years of his life. One of his sons joined anti-war protests. To know that a close member of your family disagrees with you on something so elemental and would take to the streets in a showing that would be sure to capture public attention and that so much of society finds you worthy of revulsion would be a torturous way to end one's years -- like Oedipus' blinding himself and living out his life in exile.
Many probably wished that McNamara had done exactly that. Unlike so many of the 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-years who were sent to Vietnam and came home in body bags or who came home with debilitating physical or mental scars, McNamara got to live out his years in relative peace. In a poignant anecdote, the Times described the aged McNamara and his 1,000-yard stare as a common site walking the Washington, D.C., streets near his office by the White House.
While many from the Vietnam generation would likely find nothing but disgust for McNamara, I found him pitiable. For one, the man was tortured by the idea that the only thing that prevented him from being convicted as a war criminal for his role in the decision to bomb civilian targets in Japan during World War II was the concept that the United States came out on the winning side.
I also thought of George W. Bush's defense secretary, Donald Rumseld, and how he seemingly repeated so many mistakes in Iraq that McNamara did in Vietnam (a failure to know your enemy, notably) and Rumsfeld's bristling at any criticism. In the end, McNamara accepted blame for his failures.
It's one thing to realize the error of your ways and be tortured by it. It's quite another never to admit that you made any. ("Stuff happens," is a favorite Rumsfeldian bromide.)
The other obit was that of Robert Taylor, who served as publisher of the Philadelphia Bulletin when it was that city's largest newspaper and one of the largest in America. When I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, many of the older veterans of the paper talked wistfully about the Bulletin, which went under in 1982. (Just as 2009 is sounding the death knell for a number of large newspapers, so did the early '80s with those in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., going under.) Those reporters saw the competitive pressures from the Bulletin as making the Inquirer better; they viewed the Inquirer as badly in decline when I worked there in the late '90s, a shell of its perennial Pulitzer Prize-winning self from the era of editor Eugene Roberts.
So, in essence, the Bulletin went from being the largest afternoon paper in the United States to out of busines in about 15 years. Afternoon papers began dying, losing out to their morning counterparts which won out as readers chose the immediacy of earlier as opposed to later news.
It's not so different from what's going on today. It's taken the Internet about as long to erode the business model of today's papers.
There were but few similarities to the obits for Taylor and McNamara, one being that both lived well into their '90s. These men, ensconced in white-collar, upper class jobs, lived a lot longer than both of my grandfathers, who expired in their mid-70s after lifetimes of manual labor.
For a cold, rainy summer day, it proved to be a thought-provoking dose of reading.


  1. Nice post. Have you seen Errol Morris' great, great documentary about McNamara "The Fog of War?" If not RENT IT NOW.

    I'm of two minds about McNamara. He IS a pitiable figure, and clearly tortured by guilt over the massive bombing of Japan and then Vietnam. He spent his entire post-Pentagon life trying to atone for his crimes (and they were crimes, in my opinion), etc.

    But he's just one among many examples of US gov't officials who committed massive crimes during an aggressive war who gets off scot-free. Now obviously McNamara was more self-aware and thus felt much more moral responsibility than a Kissinger or a Rumsfeld , but, I mean...when you look at the figures of Vietnamese slaughtered by American napalm it's quite overwhelming. Saddam was hanged for less.

  2. Haven't seen the Errol Morris documentary but will try to get it on Netflix. I read his piece in the Times today. Wednesday had the more visceral responses to McNamara while today's were more nuanced and, dare I call them, defenses. Fascinating individual.