Honoring Jesse

Jonathan Schell

March 26, 1993|By Jonathan Schell

A story and cartoon on Friday mixed up Sens. Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond. We regret the error.

EARLIER this month, Sen. Strom Thurmond, a man who ran for president in 1948 on the segregationist "Dixiecrat" ticket ("I want to tell you," he said then, "that there's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches"); a man who championed the Vietnam War from start to finish; a man who defended Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal up to the moment the president resigned (at one point he blamed the scandal on Ralph Nader and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others); a man notable, in short, for supporting a host of causes the country at large eventually came to regard as mistaken if not sinful, turned 90.

The event was amazingly free of specific content. None of the events listed above was mentioned. They had all vanished, it seemed, from collective memory. Yet not only had the man survived -- and this is the key point -- he remains in office! He is that rarity among American politicians, a man whose life in office has been almost coextensive with his life on Earth. And so all of Washington came to pay tribute. President Clinton came. Former President Nixon came. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, Sen. Joe Biden, everyone came.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The celebration turned out to be a kind of memorial service turned upside-down. At memorial services, speakers are likely to say that although the person has died, the causes he supported live on. But here it was the causes that had died while the person lives on.

Nor was it the case, as sometimes happens, that the causes had been trampled by evil forces but lived on in people's hearts. These causes -- segregation, for example -- have died in people's hearts, including, as it happens, Senator Thurmond's. Once the civil rights legislation of the 1960s became law, the South Carolina Republican hastened to integrate his staff. He became a monument to integration in the way an enemy fortress that falls in war becomes a monument to victory.

What, in these circumstances, were the speakers to say? Were they to sing the praises of integration? Praise Senator Thurmond for changing his mind? Defend Richard Nixon's innocence in Watergate? They opted to speak of virtues that a person can display in pursuit of any goal whatever: vigor, steadfastness, fidelity.

Mr. Dole, the Senate's most sardonic member, who seems to survive the hypocrisy of political life by permitting himself an incessant sotto voce mockery of it, indulged himself, as the program's emcee, in black comedy. His most daring jibe, in response to many speakers' tributes to Mr. Thurmond's longevity (one giddily wished him "another 90 years"), was to ask if Dr. Kevorkian was in the house.

Mr. Mitchell's list of encomiums was a masterpiece of omission. As in Japanese painting, the artistry lay in what had been left out. He said of Mr. Thurmond, "By his sheer longevity, his energy, his force of will, his overwhelming persuasiveness, he has shaped the history of our time."

The most elaborate moment came when Mr. Nixon rose to speak. The former president was, as usual, in the midst of a comeback. He was championing the cause of Russia and had met recently with the president. But it was the comeback of a ghost. The fallen Richard Nixon is a spectral figure, and his peregrinations through the lecture halls and op-ed pages of America are a kind of life after death.

Yet the ghost is a far more pleasant personage than the man in power ever was. It fell to Mr. Nixon to add poetry to the occasion. He quoted Sophocles: "One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been."

Coming from Mr. Nixon, it was a surprising affirmation. It seemed to forgive Senator Thurmond for whatever mistakes he might have made, to forgive himself for his own mistakes, and to forgive the rest of us for having had to condemn them. In an evening of merciful omissions, he gave voice to a sentiment of absolution that somehow was real.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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