Are we hopelessly divided — even in death?
Someone who follows my work, who identified himself as “Steve,” reached out to me the other day with a question:
“Since the death of my literary hero, Larry McMurtry, I have reread some of his best works. In the non-fiction book, ‘Roads,’ he writes about the death of FDR when McMurtry was a young kid on the West Texas plains, how Americans lined the train tracks where FDR’s body was being railed back for his funeral. These people openly wept and mourned. This got me to thinking: Do we have such a figure in the U.S. who is so beloved as to be deeply mourned by a large cross-section of the population? … Any politicians or statesmen? None of the living presidents would garner such an outpouring. It seems we are hopelessly divided, even in death.”
I thought about his question, about the disturbing picture he paints of America today, and hoped I could come up with a name or two — but I couldn’t. I couldn’t think of anyone in the world of politics or sports, or our culture generally, who would garner such an outpouring of respect and sadness. I couldn’t think of anyone who is so widely respected and admired — by people on both sides of our political and cultural divides — that his or her demise would make us weep the way that John Kennedy’s or John Lennon’s deaths, for example, made us all weep. But the way they were taken from us had a lot to do with the grief we felt.
A thoughtful friend who served in Congress a while back weighed in on the question. “I can’t think of anyone current who would trigger deep mourning among a cross-section of the country,” he wrote to me. “Last one who comes to mind is my friend Ron Reagan. Remember all those cars pulling over from the crowded California highway and people getting out to watch his hearse pass by, saluting, weeping or just standing in respectful silence. And the line leading to his coffin in the Capitol Rotunda stretched as far as the eye can see, and people waited hours to just walk by it for a moment to pay their respects. And to this day, mention his name and the overwhelming majority of the American people think of him with great fondness and respect.”
I’m not at all sure that liberals who used to enjoy referring to Reagan as that “amiable dunce” would feel the way my friend does, but I get his point: a lot of Americans would. He went on to say, “While there are many that I like and respect, I can’t think of any current sports figures who could command a great outpouring upon their death. Not like the giants of old. My first sports hero was Joe Lewis. Can’t remember who said it, but a remark that he was a credit to his race was followed by — ‘the human race.’”
In their classic song, “Mrs. Robinson,” Simon and Garfunkel lamented the passing of a time in America when we had iconic figures we greatly admired. “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” they asked. After DiMaggio died in 1999, Paul Simon wrote about the great “Yankee Clipper” in a New York Times opinion piece, “The Silent Superstar.” Simon wrote: “In these days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife [Marilyn Monroe] and the power of his silence.”
If there were Twitter or Facebook or any of the other social media platforms in DiMaggio’s day, it’s a safe bet that he’d have no part of any of them. He had no burning desire to let strangers know what he thought or how he felt — about anything.
It’s a different world in which we live today. Today, we tweet about the pizza we just had for lunch. Nothing is too small, too insignificant, too boring to share with the world.
“Steve” hit on something important when he wrote to me, something both troubling and deeply disheartening about America in 2022: “It seems we are hopelessly divided, even in death.”
That’s one thing we should all mourn, whether we play for the blue team or the red team. There’s too much division in our culture today, too much noise. Paul Simon was right: There is power in silence. And we’d be better off, I think, individually and as a nation, if we had more of it.
Bernard Goldberg is an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist. He was a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years and previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books and publishes exclusive weekly columns, audio commentaries and Q&As on his Patreon page. Follow him on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.