I have an idea for a brand new type of newspaper feature. And gosh do newspapers need one. No industry in living memory has collapsed faster than daily print journalism. You can still buy a buggy whip, which is more than can be said for a copy of the Rocky Mountain News, Cincinnati Post, or Seattle Post-Intelligencer. One would think that a business in such dire condition would be—for desperation’s sake—wildly innovative. But newspapers exhibit a fossilization of form and content that’s been preserved in sedimentary rock since the early 1970s when the “Women’s Pages” were converted to the “Leisure Section.” General Motors itself showed more inventive originality on its way to Chapter 11, as the two people who bought Pontiac Azteks can attest.
Readers are fleeing newspapers. What are newspapers offering to lure them back? Out-of-register color photographs have replaced blurry black and white pics. More working women and black people appear in comic strips. (Although comparisons to Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” and Al Capp’s “L’il Abner” show, if anything, a decline in the social relevance of the funny pages, “Marmaduke” always excepted.) Various versions of “Dr. Gridlock” have been instituted so that when you get to work and open your morning paper you can see why you didn’t get to work. That avant-garde broadsheet the New York Times supplemented its dull “Corrections” with a “Public Editor” who combines pomposity with groveling as only a New York Times editor can. And, in “Styles of the Times,” Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust have been crossbred with Anna Wintour to produce something for famously overdressed people with scary romantic entanglements that’s known in the trade as the Gay Sports Pages. Then there’s Sudoku. (Tip for silencing airplane seatmates: Take out a Friday Sudoku and rapidly fill every box in ink—it’s not like they’ll check if your numbers are right.)
One bright idea isn’t going to solve the problems of the American newspaper industry, but it’s one bright idea more than the American newspaper industry has had in 40 years. What I propose is “Pre-Obituaries”—official notices that certain people aren’t dead yet accompanied by brief summaries of their lives indicating why we wish they were.
The main advantage of the Pre-Obit over the traditional obituary is the knowledge of reader and writer alike that the as-good-as-dead people are still around to have their feelings hurt. It was a travesty of literary justice that we waited until J. D. Salinger finally hit the delete key at 91 before admitting that Catcher in the Rye stinks. The book’s only virtue is that it captures, with annoying accuracy, the maunderings of a twerp. The book’s only pleasure is in slamming the cover shut—simpler than slamming the door shut on a real Holden Caulfield, if less satisfying. The rest of Salinger’s published oeuvre was precious or boring or both. But we felt constrained to delay saying so, perhaps because of an outdated Victorian hope for a death-bed flash of genius.
Let us wait no more. With the Pre-Obituary we can abandon pusillanimous constraint and false hope and say what we think about the lives of public nuisances when their lives are not yet a dead letter. And we won’t be stuck in the treacle of nostalgia and sentiment. We won’t find ourselves saying of some oaf, “His like will not pass this way again.” Or, if we do say it, we can comfortably add, “Thank God!” The precept of Diogenes isn’t “Do not speak ill of the living.”
Think of the opportunities we’ve missed already. Bea Arthur (1922-2009) performed a grievous disservice to popular culture by uniting two equally dreadful but previously discrete American types. In her portrayal of loud, Bolshie Maude, Arthur taught every angry feminist to be a common scold and every termagant housewife to be Emma Goldman. Once Arthur had become respectable by dying no one had the nerve to title her funeral notice “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Paul Newman (1925-2008) was not, in and of himself, a bad person. But he deserved to be damned to his face for lending charm to the smirk of liberalism. And after he’d become an immortal only a heartless writer would have pointed out that for an entire generation of young people, Paul Newman is, mainly, a salad dressing.
John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) was, in and of himself, a bad person. He taught economics at Harvard, served in FDR’s Office of Price Administration, was chairman of Americans for Democratic Action, and, after 97 years of comfort and achievement in a free market society, still believed that a free market society is wrong. Maybe it is, if it provides comfort and achievement to John Kenneth Galbraiths. There’s a special stove-top perch in the kitchen corner of hell for witty, urbane, prosperous, and celebrated leftists. It would have been nice to tell John about it before he took his seat.
And then there’s that missed opportunity of all opportunities, Ted Kennedy (1932-2009). One Pre-Obituary hardly would have done the job. Teddy left us with 50 years of unperformed dances upon his future grave. There was the death of his self-respect in 1962 when he was given his brother’s Senate seat the way a child is given a toy to keep him occupied on a long trip. There was the death of his conscience in 1969 when he killed Mary Jo Kopechne. There was the death of his political fortunes in 1980 when he couldn’t wrestle the presidential nomination from even Jimmy Carter. And there was the long, slow death of what little sense he had as he became the Grand Old Moron of the Senate.
We mustn’t let these passings pass us by again. There are all sorts of knaves and fools ready to be put to bed with a shovel. Why should they sit at their ease in God’s waiting room reading old issues of the Nation?
Jimmy Carter is 85. We must hasten to throw the Camp David Accord in his face before he heads to his eternal camp-out with Anwar el-Sadat. Gore Vidal is 84. There’s no chance he’ll end up in the same place as Bill Buckley. We ought to take up Buckley’s gauntlet and slap Gore’s face here and now. Noam Chomsky is 81. Why should Satan have all the fun? We own pitchforks of fact aplenty with which to prod his living flesh. Norman Lear is 87 and will be married to Maude forever any minute now. (Although Lear may find himself forgiven. He never meant to make Archie Bunker a hero and a role model, but perhaps the road to heaven is paved with bad intentions.) Ed Asner is 80. Put him together with Ben Bradlee (88) and Alan J. Pakula, director of All the President’s Men (died in 1998, darn it), and you have the villains in the tragic tale of the American newspaper’s self-congratulatory ossification. Ross Perot also will be 80 soon. We owe him one Bill Clinton-sized philippic. Ralph Nader is 76. High time that someone, metaphorically, flipped him in a Corvair. And Paul Ehrlich is 78. In these days of the graying workforce, baby bust, and demographic decline, surely he needs a population bomb in his underpants.
The beauty of obituaries for the still-extant is that they needn’t be limited to those who are about to go home feet first. Preemptive necrology can be practiced on persons who are in the prime of life, especially if they’ve had their little turn in the limelight and will never do anything else of note if they live to be 1,000.
Maybe “prime of life” isn’t the right descriptive phrase for Ted Turner (71) and Jane Fonda (72), Barney Frank and Harry Reid (70), Bernie Sanders (68), Christopher Dodd (66), Bernadine Dohrn (68), and Bill Ayers (65). They’ll all receive medical treatment paid for with our Medicare tax dollars when they have the stroke they’ll get after reading their Pre-Obits. But, aging though these pests may be, they strike this writer as the kind of people who will live on and on and, before they buy the (organic) farm, may be declared “national treasures” if we don’t do something about it now.
Among the younger of the “dead-but-too-dumb-to-lie-down” we find Andrew Lloyd Webber (62). What a joy to get out the knives and hatchets and hammers and tongs and craft fresh reviews of Jesus Christ Superstar, The Phantom of the Opera, and Cats. A careful reinspection of the career of Donald Trump (63) might send the man to federal medium security prison (naming rights available). What a stink there is rising from the rotting corpse of the body of ideas held by Paul Krugman (57). And to Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (both 59), late—as it were—of Ben & -Jerry’s, let us suggest the flavor “Grateful Deadly Nightshade.”
Chronological age means nothing, of course, among show business types. They pop off at random all the time. An announcement of the untimely continuing existence of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, or any of the Kardashian sisters would provide an always welcome chance to denounce every aspect of what passes for entertainment in modern America. As a bonus, such advance post-mortems have every likelihood of proving more prescient than premature. “Sudden Collapse in Pilates Studio” seems a likely all-purpose headline. Let’s throw in Sean Penn for good measure.
Plus there are quite a few show business types who actually are past their sell-by dates. Keith Richards is a high-mileage 66 and Mick Jagger is pushing 67 with a short stick. The members of the Who (those “who” remain alive) have a cumulative age greater than the number of hours it feels like it takes to listen to Tommy. “Hope I die before I get old,” indeed. To make a detailed list of this category of geriatric star mark down everyone who’s played the Super Bowl halftime since Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, plus Janet (44).
Finally there is the Pre-Obituary of an individual that can be run as a regular feature: “______________ Mysteriously Not Shot by His Wife.” The item is as predictable as “Hints From Heloise,” but what newspaper reader will be able to resist a weekly—or even daily—peek into the ongoing living death of John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, and Tiger Woods.
P.J. O’Rourke, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is author, most recently, of Driving Like Crazy.