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Bob Hope is lucky to be alive. In addition to recently celebrating his ninety-fifth birthday, Hope was able to receive a taste of the postmortem praise that awaits him. As was widely reported, due to a darkly comic technical snafu, the Associated Press prematurely announced Hope's death on its web site. Some members of Congress got wind of this and rushed to extol his virtues for the sake of the Congressional Record and C-SPAN audiences everywhere.
Of course, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of Bob Hope's demise were greatly exaggerated. Despite the momentary trauma it probably caused his family, friends and fans, the AP's grave error (no pun intended) did allow Hope the chance to hear Congressman Bob Stump (R-Ariz.) solemnly announce on the floor of Congress that "I have the sad responsibility to tell you this afternoon that Bob Hope passed away. We will all miss him very much." Adding a bipartisan twist to the tribute, Congressman David Bonior (D-Mich.) echoed Stump's sentiments. "We are all saddened by his passing," said Bonior "We thank him for the memories."
Bob Hope's case of death-by-media is an apt example of the over-the-top business of celebrity death today. In the absence of wars, economic problems or the O.J. Simpson trial, the media vacuum is conveniently and easily filled by morbid, yet highly-rated, coverage of a famous one's passing.
Case-in-point: Witness last month's orgy of mourning surrounding the death of Frank Sinatra. Despite all of the tribute albums, concerts and books already dedicated to him during his life, oceans of ink about the Chairman of the Board were spilled on the pages of every magazine from Rolling Stone to the New York Review of Books.
All things considered though, Sinatra was relatively lucky. At least he was able to get a sense for the public's adoration for him while still alive. Many of his fellow celebrities aren't so lucky. Often, the celebrated pass to the hereafter without fully realizing the extent of their impact. Say what you will about Elton John's musical tribute to Diana, he was right when he sang that the Princess's countrymen will miss her "more than [she would] ever know."
It is one of the tragic ironies of our celebrity age that our puffing-up of the famous in their lifetime is surpassed only by media frenzy that follows their death. While those celebrities who die young--Diana, JFK, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain--remain forever young and full of promise in the public imagination, tragically, they have already left the stage when the applause for them is loudest and the spotlight brightest.
While home in Arizona earlier this month, I was able to witness the royal send-off granted the state's favorite son, former Senator and Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Goldwater certainly received his share of praise while alive. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and saw his name adorn an airport terminal, a high school and numerous other landmarks around Arizona. He was also credited with planting the seeds of a conservative movement that would eventually produce the Reagan Revolution and the Republican take-over of Congress. Conservative columnist George Will was quoted as saying that "we--27,178,188 of us--who voted for him in 1964 believe he won, it just took 16 years to count the votes."
Curiously though, as "Mr. Conservative" stuck to his libertarian principles and advocated now-un-conservative positions, he was increasingly ostracized by the conservative monster he had helped create. When he argued for gay rights, abortion rights and a firm separation of church and state, Goldwater's small-minded ideological progeny would shake their hands, allude to Barry's failing health and his younger, more liberal wife. As he related to a National Review editor, "I haven't been invited to speak at the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) for maybe 15 years? You'd think I was on the other side."
It took his death for national Republican leaders to be shamed into acknowledging their debt to this uniquely-honest and principled politician by paying their respects at his funeral in Phoenix. But as they always say at those postmortem tributes: "It's too bad he wasn't around to see it...."
What then is to be done? How to avoid the over-the-top post-death hype that doesn't do the celebrity any good and usually nauseates those of us still among the living?
Well, if religious, one can keep the faith that the departed is able to continue to bask in his glory from the great beyond and content themselves with thoughts like "he would've liked this" and "I'm sure she's looking down on us now."
For the more this-worldly among us, though, it may seem cliched, but we can and should express our appreciation to the famous and not-so-famous who have touched us while they're still around. For the famous in particular, rather than devouring the gossip dredged from their private lives, we should thank them for their achievements by supporting them and respecting their privacy. It's time we worked to diminish our seemingly insatiable appetite for celebrity news and gossip. By turning down the glare of the bright lights, we can let the celebrated live and die in peace.
Rustin C. Silverstein '99 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. He is working in Cambridge this summer as a research assistant to a government professor.
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