Friday, June 26, 2009

Dead like Me

The passing on June 25 of pop star Michael Jackson proved once again that death can be a good career move. Millions of his CDs that had been collecting dust on music store shelves were snapped up in minutes, no doubt retiring much of the debt his estate has inherited.

One of the reasons for that resurgence of popularity, no doubt, was the relentless media reporting of his death, including lengthy video biographies and samples of his music.

But wait, many fans said. How did television and cable networks come up with the filmed obituaries mere seconds after he died? My daughter Elita logged a Facebook entry expressing her suspicion that "media must have had a secret 'for when Michael Jackson dies' video tribute for years." "OMG," several of her friends logged back, apparently appalled. "I think you're right."

In point of fact, such tributes to Jackson did exist and, as Elita perceived, media outlets had been poised for years to release them. Similar tributes were in the can for Ed McMahon and Farrah Faucette and, you can be sure, have been prepared for celebrities still warm. If, God forbid, the Olsen twins stepped in front of a bus, every television in Walmart would be showing their faces before the tires stopped spinning.

Every media outlet I know has a prehumous obit file so staff writers won't have to dig all night for facts and sources if the police chief can't be heimliched in time.

Maccabre as it may seem, I said, joining Elita's Facebook chain, even church news offices have files of obituaries of church leaders still breathing. I was particularly proud, I said, of one I wrote for Billy Graham three years ago. (I mention Billy because I know he's been around long enough to know his obituaries have been written, polished, and set in type, waiting for the time and date to be inserted.)

At this point son-in-law Matt joined the chain from Olympia: "Wouldn't it be great," he asked, "if you could just recycle old obits. Think of the time you'd save. 'Billy Graham, composer of such pop hits as Thriller and Billie Jean, and latter day apostle of crotch-grabbing greatness, wowed audiences in packed stadiums the world around ...'"

Sounds good to me, Matt. Pre-death obits are, after all, a time-saving device in the age of instant communication. The only problem with keeping them loaded and cocked in your computer is the danger of releasing them too soon, as when the reports would be, in Mark Twain style, exagerrated. I remember an instance in which the death of the mother of a church bureaucrat was prematurely reported, requiring a retraction reporting she was no longer dead. Sure, the story has a familiar ring to it, but no one in the church expects to see it more than once.

In the halcyon days of typewriters and mimeographed press releases, time seemed to move slower and the risk of premature obits was not as great. On the contrary, sometimes days and weeks passed before the obit saw the light of day.

In the fall of 1972, former President Harry Truman -- a Baptist -- lay dying. My editor in the American Baptist Division of Communication, Dr. Frank Sharp, asked me to write an obituary of the former president that quoted notable Baptists. It seemed as if Mr. Truman's passing was imminent so I acted quickly. I called Harold Stassen, a prominent American Baptist who had once been a serious contender for Mr. Truman's job. Mr. Stassen immediately agreed and the next day I received a nice tribute written in Stassen's own hand on lined yellow paper. I typed the quote into the story and waited. And waited.

President Truman lingered for weeks and after a while the obituary sank deeper in the pile of papers on my desk. By late December, Truman's illness had disappeared from the papers and we closed the American Baptist offices for Christmas.

I don't remember what I did Christmas Day 1972, but I remember December 26. I was awaked at home by a phone call. The baritone voice that never needed amplification was Stassen's. The New York Times had just called him for a statement.

"Truman's dead," Stassen rumbled. "Where's the darn obit?" (He really said darn. That's the way he talked. He was a Christian gentleman and, besides, his decible level didn't require cussing.)

I drove quickly to the office to pull the obit out of the pile and called the impatient Times obituary editor and read it to him over the phone. Truman's death, of course, made the front page. I don't remember if they quoted Stassen or not. But we tried.

When Michael Jackson died, times had changed. His obituary was already written, filed and ready to go. No one had to lose sleep or drive to the office to pull it out of a dusty file. Those days are gone forever. And I, for one, don't miss them.

There are, of course, celebrities and politicians of prominence that I hope will be around for many years, and it is not pleasant to remember that their obituaries have been written, too. It's a consequence of the age of instant media. It's fueled by our need for instant intellectual gratification, the same impulse that has turned "Google" into a verb.

It is a little unnerving to spend hours documenting a person's death years before it happens, but perhaps there's an up side to that. Motivational speakers make fortunes encouraging us to live each day as if it were our last. Maybe the way to do that is to add a line or two each day to our prehumous obits. And, of course, remember to leave the obits where an editor can find them.

Michael and Julie and the Price of Fame

Was Michael Jackson the most famous person in the world?

You could get that impression watching the reported reaction to his death Thursday. Impromptu street memorials were erected in a thousand cities as millions gathered to weep, embrace and caress wrinked photographs of Michael's deconstructed face. Social networks logged millions of messages about Michael (including an insightful Facebook inquiry from my nephew as to whether the masters of Beatles albums controlled by Jackson would be freed). His obituary in the New York Times was as wordy as the ones for Johnny Cash (the most famous person in the world in an earlier era) and Jonas Salk.

Most of the people mourning Michael never met him or saw him in concert, but virtually all of us have seen high definition images of the face where melanin went to die. His death was a personal loss. It's not like we'll miss Michael at the next class reunion or Thanksgiving gathering, but he was a part of our lives. Media have made it so.

Media have incalculable power to create the illusion we know people we don't. I've written earlier about the tears I shed at the death of President Kennedy, who was nothing more to me than organized electronic flickers on a 12-inch TV screen. Our daughter Katie adores Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen and rarely misses a re-run of Full House, where the Olsen twins are magically amalgamized into a single character, Michelle. When Katie caught a glimpse of the twins in person at a Macy's Thanksgiving parade, she screamed with the joy of meeting old friends.
Years ago, when television and I were young, it was exciting when circumstances brought us into actual contact with the people we saw on television. For most of the 1950s, the most famous person I had ever met was the weatherman on Syracuse's WSYR-TV, and I remember studying his face to detect the wrinkles, pores and hairs you couldn't see on a 12-inch screen. For me, the fact that this guy (name long-since forgotten) was on television made him more important than everyone else I knew. At about the same time I met New York Governor Averill Harriman in Albany, but I had never seen him on television, so I didn't think he was important.

Of course it's a problem if media create artificial auras for the rich and famous, because the rich and famous are no greater (and often lesser) than the folks in our neighborhoods. But it's a problem that's hard to avoid. When I was a newspaper reporter, I absolutely loved interviewing celebrities and dropping their names at social functions. Julius LaRosa was one of my favorites because his story was such a vivid illustration of the peaks and valleys of mediated fame. Julie (okay, I called him Mr. LaRosa) was one of the most famous celebrities in the U.S. from November 19, 1951 to October 19, 1953 as the lead singer on the Arthur Godfrey and His Friends television program. He was so famous, in fact, that millions of viewers remembered all their lives where they were and what they were doing that fateful October day when Arthur fired Julie on the air. When I met him, Mr. LaRosa was singing on cruise lines that catered to an older demographic.

When Michael Jackson died yesterday, the media spotlight flared so intensely that anyone could see how uncomfortable it must have made him in life. He was phenomenally talented ... he was an abused child ... he was ashamed of the face he was born with ... he was an obsessive spender ... he was closeted ... he was a child molester ...

Some of those defects were obvious to casual observers, others were denied by friends and one was dismissed by a jury. But wherever the truth may lie, it appears the glare of the light was a source of immense pain to him. Perhaps Michael Jackson was the most famous person in the world. But perhaps that was one of the things that destroyed him.

Julie LaRosa's fame was short-lived, but in the 45 minutes I was his best friend, I didn't get the impression he was bothered by his relative obscurity. I interviewed him several years ago at the opening of Boscov's Department Store in Pottstown. I watched as he entertained an audience of 60-something women, occasionally stopping to hold a woman's hand and gaze into her eyes as he sang an old love song. ("You have such warm hands," he'd say to the hyperventilating woman, "You must have a warm heart.") When he finished his performance, he escorted me into a back room, sat down and held up a cigarette. "Please don't mention this," he said, lighting up. The interview must have been boilerplate of a thousand he had given before ("Arthur was not a gentleman. I was getting more fan mail than he was ..."), and I wrote it all down. But as he talked about his wife and daughters and grandchildren, I got the impression of a very happy man.

Maybe Arthur did him a favor. He didn't let the media raise Julie to that pinnacle of fame where we would have regarded him as more important as everyone else we knew.

That kind of attention is destructive, especially so because we can't seem to help it. Fame is so seductive and meeting famous people is so cool.

I don't know if there was any way for Michael Jackson to escape that kind of destruction, or whether he would have been happier and lived longer if his singing career had ended when the Jackson Five disappeared from the charts.
But as the media continue to blare his unexpected death as "the top story of the day," I wonder if it isn't in many ways a sweet release for the King of Pop.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Anything you say, Dad

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Friday lecture to the people of Iran may have been fatherly, but did it set a good example for us dads as we admire our gift ties this Sunday?

After days of opposition rallies following the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khamenei -- Iran's Supreme Leader -- said further demonstrations will be the cause of "bloodshed and chaos."

Furthermore, Khamenei said, the election was not rigged and the election of Ahmadinejad was both legitimate and "historic."

The Ayatollah is probably right about the bloodshed and chaos part, because he has the national police force to make it happen. As to the legitimate election part, he's probably fibbing. Observers have pointed out that Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by a landslide before the votes were counted, and the huge pre-election demonstrations supporting his opponent, Mir Hussein Moussavi, portended a different result. But we'll never know because the vote count is not open to public inspection. We are left to nurse our suspicions that Iran's Guardian Council wanted the conservative Ahmadinejad to be re-elected by a large margin and lost no time pretending it to be so.

Whatever happened -- or will happen -- in Iran, it will be years before we sort it out. Few of us in the West understand what is happening beneath the surface. For example, how did Moussavi suddenly emerge as the icon of liberal reform after years of toeing the conservative Islamic line? Is his evident change of heart authentic, or is he manipulating his supporters in a cynical quest for power? And what power? It is the Supreme Leader who has most of the power in Iran, including the command of the armed forces and control of the governing philosophy of the country, so how much reform can the president cause?

Parenthetically, the limits to the president's power were evident in February 2007 when U.S. religious leaders, including a member of the National Council of Churches staff, met with Ahmadinejad in Teheran. In addition to observing that the Iranian president was not as nuts as he was portrayed in U.S. media, the church leaders quoted Ahmadinejad that Iran has no plans to build a nuclear weapon "because this is forbidden as contrary to Islam by the Supreme Leader." That's nice to know, unless the Supreme Leader is a fibber.

All of which is to reiterate how difficult it is for outsiders to understand what is going on in Iran. But recent events do prompt us to think about religious issues we do understand, including the arbitrary use of theocratic authority. If we are appalled by Ayatollah Khamanei's claim that his dictatorial powers are God-given, we are overlooking a lot of our own Christian history.

In many of our homes, it begins with our fathers. Although we American Baby Boomers have mitigated it somewhat, most of us can remember when our dads exercised undisputed moral authority over our families, assured that their authority was God-given, too. I remember with genuine affection that my father used to slap my hat off my head when I was crude enough to wear it in the house, but I've noticed that people are shocked when I tell the story, as if he was abusive. I don't think he was abusive, but I still can't wear a hat indoors without thinking about him. (Note: I'm sure Dad would have made an exception for yarmulkes, zucchettos, turbans and taqiyahs.)

And there are thousands who remember being abused by their dads. Many were hit and beaten when they misbehaved, and many still have the scars to prove it. Some dads were, and still are, supported by church authorities when they use their authority. As an Air Force chaplain's assistant in the sixties, I served coffee and tea to airmen and their dependents as they waited to see the chaplain. One day I noticed that a sergeant's wife was agitated as she waited for the door to open. I asked if I could get her anything and she stood up so abruptly that she knocked the chair over. "I'm not going in there," she announced. "He tells me to put out for my husband, and he tells my husband he can take it any time he wants. Your God is a bully."

She may have misinterpreted the chaplain's message, but there's no doubt that some church authorities have been telling men it's okay to beat their wives and children when they deviate from expected paths.

There are other less sinister examples of when religion pushes the faithful to logical precipices. In the late 1960s, my alma mater -- then called Eastern Baptist College -- offered students a religion department that believed in evolution and a biology department that preached creationism. Oddly, no one in the administration appeared to be embarrassed by that. And, as I said, it was the sixties.

But no one at the college claimed to have the authority to force students to believe in either evolution or creationism, because it doesn't take a deep theologian to sense the falicies in that kind of authoritarianism. Whenever any person or any group claims to have power over others because of an arbitrary or nonsensical distinction -- like gender or race or nationality or age -- it leads to trouble.

There are a lot of reasons, of course, why authority is good. It protects the social order and advances the general welfare and prevents rude gentiles from wearing baseball caps inside.

And there are a lot of reasons why ecclesiastical and theological authority is good because it maintains tradition and protects faith. And it may well be that Ayatollah Khamenei, though a poor counter and fibber, has the best interests of his nation and his people at heart.

But all the same, arbitrary claims to power never last forever. And they always lead to trouble.

I'm sure my Dad knew that.