Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2004 / 11 Teves 5764

Paul Greenberg

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An obituary for qualities

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The year-end obituaries have paid due homage to the national icons, the rich and famous, the talented and not so. But there really ought to be obituaries not just for people but for the qualities they represented. For traditions, customs, styles that have faded. For example:

- Original, incisive, apolitical thought in the United States Senate. I don't think of Daniel Patrick Moynihan much anymore - only when the subject is foreign or domestic policy and anything in between or beyond. More important than the way he voted was the way he thought - as if we could actually reason our way to sound policy and even historical perspective.

Senator Moynihan has been replaced - no, no one could replace him - but rather succeeded by politicians who talk in an endless loop of sound bites. If you listen to all that pap carefully, you hear the little wheels of calculation grinding away behind the thoughts they're expressing at the time - most of which are not thoughts at all but press releases that bear the impress of PR types. Mediocre PR types. The more they talk, the less they say. Unlike the Websters, Calhouns and Clays, the Bob La Follettes and Robert A. Tafts . . . and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

- Let us now praise Englishmen who should have born in the desert. Like Wilfred Thesiger, also known as Mubarak bin London to his fellow Bedouin traversing Arabia's vast Empty Quarter on camelback. Sir Wilfred would write about it in "Arabian Sands," though his magisterial work on the Marsh Arabs of Iraq may be better remembered, and may even have helped save them. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)


(The Marsh Arabs were still another category of Iraqis that Saddam Hussein tried to exterminate, in their case by draining the swamps they depended on.)

Not that Sir Wilfred's standing anywhere but in the desert seemed to matter to him. "I was happiest," he once mused, "when I had no communication with the outside world, when I was utterly dependent on my tribal companions." Now he is gone, like the last rider in a caravan in time that goes back to adventurers the like Richard F. Burton and T.E. Lawrence. They're now an extinct type - both quintessentially English and wholly nomadic. They were never more in place than when out of place - like the sort of Englishman who used to climb Everest in tweed suit and leather walking shoes. The line ended with Sir Wilfred.

- Grace and elegance in a lost cause. So many true believers turn into bores or demagogues, or both. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, heiress of the Soong dynasty, was the last empress of a China of the mind. But she held her fashionable head high till her death this year at 105, still a stranger in a strange land (New York). By then she would have been a stranger even in her own land, at home only in exile.

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The last of the three legendary Soong sisters, Madame Chiang had long since outlived her fame, and even her China. Her epic life was the last, strange room of Sun Yat-Sen's dream of a true Chinese republic. But whatever she represented, she did it with unusual, even unique, dignity - and longevity.

- And finally, may the World Series rest in peace. Who really wanted to watch the Marlins and Yankees play this year, when the Cubs and Red Sox had seemed poised to defy their respective curses? Naturally they didn't. Once the playoffs were concluded, so was any real interest in the game.

The World Series is now only a pretext for a real work of art - the annual piece by Roger Angell, the de Tocqueville of Baseball, summing up the proceedings in The New Yorker. This year his own fall classic began:

"Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, in a surprise news conference two days after the conclusion of the recent World Series, announced that Major League Baseball will undertake a radical change in scheduling next fall, when the Divisional and League Championship eliminations will come after the World Series, not before. 'Tradition matters,' Selig said, 'but the fans have made it clear that they much prefer the interest and drama of postseason play, and we're going to oblige them. From now on, it's the Fall Classic first and then heartbreak.' The commissioner confirmed reports that he had called in metaphysicians to tackle the contradictions inherent in such a plan. . . ."

As the national pastime, baseball may be dead, but as grist for American literature, it remains unmatched. As a kid, I'd have given anything to play like DiMaggio. As an aging sportswriter manque reduced to pounding out columns about infrastructure and multilateralism, I've come to admire the stars of a different sport: writing. And the man writes like an Angell. He's got me looking forward to next year, or rather to next season, and especially to reading him on it. Happy Aught-Four and Play Ball!

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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