AllPolitics - TIME This Week

Washington Diary

Grief Analysis

[Margaret Carlson]

By Margaret Carlson

(TIME, April 22) -- Death had better watch its step in Washington. The day after Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 34 others slammed into a hill in Croatia, editors at the Wall Street Journal showed what steely stuff they were made of by calling the trip a junket. Having criticized Brown in life, they weren't going to let a thing like dying in the line of duty slow them down. Then came Bryant Gumbel, criticizing Republicans for extending insufficient sympathy to the family, which opened the floodgates to comparative condolences. Was Republican Party chairman Haley Barbour's four-line press release equivalent to then Democratic Party head Ron Brown's flying the flag at half staff over party headquarters and attending services when his counterpart, Lee Atwater, died young of a brain tumor? Shouldn't the Speaker of the House and Senate majority leader have gone to the funeral of a Cabinet secretary?

The most pointed moment of Instant Grief Analysis came when NBC did a frame-by-frame deconstruction of the President walking along after Brown's funeral, laughing at something he was being told--then going all somber when the camera was trained on him. This was offered as proof that the President is a phony, when an equally valid explanation is that people laugh at funerals all the time. Only in the capital would someone stop doing so out of fear it would be used against him--as it was.

It seems that in the land of artifice, only a chump would accept sorrow at face value. It's soft to let the dead rest in peace for a few days and naive not to administer the equivalent of a Breathalyzer for grief. The President often exhibits an overabundance of emotion. But in any other place, a person would be granted a presumption of sincerity if a dear friend and indispensable colleague had finally met a mountain he couldn't move.

At Brown's memorial service, Senator Edward Kennedy called his former chief counsel "Will Rogers in reverse. I never met a person who didn't like Ron Brown." Surely the more than 7,000 people who stood in line all night to walk past Brown's remains resting on the catafalque built for Abraham Lincoln couldn't be faking it as well. Many of them, with their flimsy umbrellas breaking in the wind and icy rain, didn't know Brown but knew someone who did or benefited from some project he got off the ground. Jasper Johnson, who passed by the casket early Wednesday morning, cut Brown's hair every two weeks for 20 years in Shaw. It was the neighborhood Brown often frequented, where he dropped off his shoes to be repaired and ate lunch on Saturdays; nearby, he played his weekend basketball games and lived in a split-level town house in an integrated development right where black Washington gives way to white. "He was a down-to-earth person,'' says Johnson. "He helped me open my own shop." Johnson closed it briefly to join hundreds of others on the street to salute Brown as the cortege went past.

By week's end Republicans were quietly complaining about the bounce Clinton is getting in the polls for presiding over so much tragedy, but it's hard to imagine what Clinton could have done differently. In Washington, even death is a partisan affair.

TIME This Week

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