No secrets in the grave

Russell Baker

June 25, 1991|By Russell Baker

AFTER Bing Crosby died his son Gary published a book saying his dad had been a truly terrible father. This prompted Bob Hope to observe, "It's not even safe to die anymore."

Zachary Taylor, former president of the United States, dead since 1850, might have said, "Bob never spoke a truer line," had he been capable of issuing a press release when the knock came at his mausoleum door the other day.

He was about to be hauled out for further study. Someone writing a book suspected he may have been poisoned, so an obliging coroner had agreed to subject him to the indignities modern science is uniquely qualified to inflict.

This follows by only a few months a decision to let scientists have a crack at cloning some Abraham Lincoln cells so they can learn whether the Great Emancipator suffered from a disease nobody even knew about in Lincoln's time: something that has to do with making people tall, gangling and loose-limbed.

It's tempting to justify this by telling the scientists, "Find out what disease Lincoln had and send some to all our presidents." Alas, knowing science's mad-doctorish passion to make the 150-year-old human a commonplace, we can be sure that the knowledge would not be used to improve presidents but to wipe out a potentially invaluable disease.

Is nobody safe from a prying science driven by righteous curiosity? One of the few consolations of the grave used to be that you could take your secrets there with the certainty that they would be safe from busybodies. Its power to make secrecy eternal helped people keep life in perspective.

One stood beside the grave while clergy uttered the closing words, and one of the thoughts that ran through your mind was: "Now I'll never know . . . ."

After awhile it seemed not so important that you could never know, and as time did its work you realized that one of life's conditions was that you would never be allowed to know as much as you wanted to know.

Life surrounded us with mysteries, which could be maddening unless you relaxed and enjoyed the way they enriched life's texture.

Solve a mystery, it becomes a bore. As Edmund Wilson asked of Agatha Christie's whodunit: "Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?" Some mysteries enchant us so intensely that we reject any evidence that would deprive us of the pleasure of their company. A hundred years from now Americans will still be arguing whether Lee Harvey Oswald did it all by himself, or at all.

The impulse to take the fun out of life by solving all the mysteries is as old as Adam. What's new is the scientific skill we can now apply to the job.

As it increases, the wretched dead will have more and more reason to lie uneasy in their graves awaiting the dreadful knock which signals that the lab boys have arrived.

"Aha, my good man, we have come for your secrets. No use making a fuss about it. And don't think you can hold anything back. Nowadays we have ways of making you talk."

Disturbing dead presidents to satisfy modern curiosity is barbaric enough now when inquisitive science can examine them only for problems like arsenic and loose-limb disease. Imagine the complications when science perfects methods to solve more complex mysteries.

In recent years, for instance, some people have insisted that Lincoln, despite the superficial evidence (the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc.) was, in fact, actually a racist.

At present scientists cloning Lincoln's cells may be able to find diseases he didn't know he had. They will assure you, however, that they will never be able to clone a complete Lincoln which can be strapped to a lie detector and examined for inner feelings of bigotry.

They always laugh and call such suggestions "Buck Rogers stuff." Then they do it all: space stations, spliced genes in pig blood, the full Buck Rogers/Doctor Huer bonanza. Poor old Abe. I can see him already cloned, strapped to the machine, Pentagon security experts watching the needles jump.

"Have you been cloned, Mr. Lincoln?"

"I have indeed, gentlemen."

"All right, Lincoln. Give it to us straight from the shoulder: You're a racist, aren't you?"

In the immortal words of Fats Waller, "Mercy!"

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