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Jewish World Review Jan. 3, 2001 / 8 Teves, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Resonant lives -- MY SISTER and I were trying to remember whether a character actor of a different era was still living. We couldn't. Exasperated, she complained: "You never know who's here anymore!''

At year's end, many papers do their readers a service by running one-paragraph biographies of the famous or at least notorious who have died that year: saints and sinners, artists and con men, public servants and ruthless dictators. They did not know us, but we felt we knew them. Some of the names leap out of the list, their lives engaging us once again. teaching us the way Plutarch's Lives still does.

For example, this was the year Charles Schulz passed on, though his Peanuts never will; he left us a whole literature -- world of its own and a reflection of the worlds inside each of us.

This was also the year we lost Jeff MacNelly, whose cartoons used to grace the editorial page I edit here in Little Rock. Like so many newspapers across the country, we had come to think of him as our cartoonist, and we miss him every day. You don't realize how rare great editorial cartoonists are till you've lost one. Others may succeed Jeff MacNelly in that space; no one will replace him.

Let us now praise famous men, and remember infamous oneslike Hafez al-Assad, Syria's ruthless ruler for what seemed like forever. His shadow still looms over the Middle East like the absence of any hope of compromise with others, or even recognition of others.

This was the year Gus Hall died, too. Yes, he was still alive, though he had long since moved from Newsmakers to Trivial Pursuit. He ran for president four times on the Communist ticket, and at one point fled to Mexico.

Gus Hall escaped Leon Trotsky's fate there, since he was one of Stalin's favorites. No one who ever interviewed his hulking frame up close would forget his brutal presence. And, like Stalin, he headed his party for decades -- for 41 years to be more exact. (Communists aren't big on term limits.)

But who says Stalinists don't have their uses? Gus Hall's refusal to register as a member of the Communist Party and conspiracy led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the law requiring him (or anybody else) to register just because of his political affiliation.

In his own way, a guy who may never have had a free thought in his life had served the cause of American freedom. Gus Hall died at 90, another argument for the theory that the good die young.

It's much more pleasant to consider the life and lithe figure of Gwen Verdon, the original Lola of "Damn Yankees'' and the unforgettable star of "Sweet Charity,'' whose finale (''If They Could See Me Now'') remains a high point of the American musical theater.

When she died in her ageless 70s, some said Gwen Verdon was the greatest actress-dancer of the century, though I'm still holding out for Chita Rivera. What both had was an ability to transmit a joke on themselves with every bit of musculature in the human body, and all the delight of a human mind. Gwen Verdon made us unjustifiably proud to belong to the same unpredictable, and sometimes purely aesthetic, species.

A certain generation of ever-adolescent men will recall -- heck, we can never forgetthe throaty, torchy voice of America's chanteuse of the '50s, Julie London, who died this year at 74. Cry me a river.

My voice instinctively dropped an octave or two on hearing of the death of Robert Troutt at 91. His was the epitome of the radio voice back when radio was the new and all-conquering medium, the Internet of its time. His cultivated objectivity and instinctive dignity are hard to conjure up now in an immeasurably more vulgar age.

Robert Troutt's all-night broadcast of the historic 1948 election, with its highly unlikely outcome, remains a classic. Still wonderful to hear are the increasingly skeptical questions he put to the chief talking head of the time, H. V. Kaltenborn, who kept assuring Bob Troutt and the nation in that distinguished, trilling Mitteleuropean accent that, once the countr-r-ry vote came in, the next president of the United States would of course be Thomas E. Dewey.

It was a performance unmatched until this year, when ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and The Associated Press all gave Florida to Al Gore early election night. Mr. Troutt probably wouldn't have believed them, either. The spirit of H. V. Kaltenborn is still alive and all too well in our pollsters and among those networks irresponsible enough to trumpet their errors. Robert Troutt's was an honest American skepticism, as opposed to today's sophisticated naiveti, and it served him and the nation well.

The country had come to see and know, and admire, Charles Ruff during the late unpleasantness called impeachment. Dead at 61, he leaves behind a legacy in the law. His physical handicap was no match for his mental acuity and unfailing spirit.

Having helped pry Richard Nixon out of the Oval Office in the wake of Watergate, Charles Ruff would help Bill Clinton retain it a couple of decades later. A great lawyer can argue both sides of a case with equal dexterity.

Mr. Ruff's grasp of the law and the issues in the impeachment trial before the Senate made him, like David Boies later in the Great Chad Affair, the most appealing of advocates in the most dubious of causes. Seated in his wheelchair, Charles Ruff towered above his client.

Another great Democrat, Robert Casey, died at 68 this year after staving off one medical crisis after another over the years, always with a spirit as unflagging as his principles. The two-term governor of Pennsylvania was the Democratic Party's forgotten man, a pariah in his own party because he would not condone abortionor any of the other fashionable assaults on life in this political, social and, yes, economic culture that has fallen in love with death. (It's so much cheaper to kill than keep alive -- especially if the candidates for death are poor, handicapped or of the wrong ethnic group.)

Bob Casey not only resisted the lure of death personally but politically, and displayed a rare courage in both engagements. He never bowed to what others called political reality, because to him every unborn child, every one of the unwanted old, each of the disabled, was real. He never, never gave up on them. Or on us.

Sometimes calling the names of the dead reminds us of how alive they still are, and how dead are some of the living. May this new year, this new century, be one that delights in life. May we remember to enjoy one another, and to honor the best in each other.

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