Friday, May 23, 2008

News Reports Conjure Up Memories Of Kennedy Encounter

We were standing in an anteroom in the Hart Senate Office Building some years back when Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy walked in.

Instantly, there was a surge of energy in the room, and although the room was filled with Republican senators waiting for the start of a hearing in the adjacent committee room, all eyes turned toward him.

He took a quick scan of the room, ignored his colleagues and walked toward us, sticking out his hand: “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”

Foote Loose

We said we were from Memphis and were waiting for one of our state’s senators to join us.

“You’re from Memphis?” he said, without allowing enough hesitation for an answer. “Do you know my old friend, Shelby Foote? He’s spent time with us in the summer.”

Then, shifting easily into an uncanny impersonation of the Memphis author’s distinctive drawl and quirky speaking style, he said: “Can you give me a glass of branch water with two fingers of bourbon?”


The impersonation brought down the house (or the Senate, as the case may be), because Foote’s highly personalized speaking style had by then become almost as well-known as his remarkable three-volume of the Civil War, thanks to his starring role in Ken Burn’s PBS series.

After a few pleasantries, he was gone, stepping into the meeting room where he was immediately surrounded by admirers and seekers of favors.

We’d never seen him before, and we’ve never seen him since, but we can still hear that Shelby Foote imitation as clearly as the day he delivered it.

God’s Will (Not)

We’ve thought of it often this week as we heard that Senator Kennedy had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Despite uplifting, optimistic statements from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, his prognosis is grim. And he no doubt knows it.

As television news crews fought to fill the airtime, they almost seemed willing to put on any talking head who was available. One of them, in an attempt to explain the inexplicable, referred to it as “God’s will,” conjuring up memories of pastor cum politician Hubon Sandridge referring to God’s purpose in the aftermath of the horrific murders on Lester Street.

Divine Sadism

Maybe, if nothing else, Senator Kennedy’s disease could inspire a moratorium on the obscene use of God’s name to justify all manner of tragedies. In this vein, there’s no better time to be reminded of the eulogy by Rev. William Sloane Coffin upon the death of his son, Alex:

“Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths, and Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness.

“Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths. I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist, yes, even an Eternal Vivisector.

“The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over his sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

There’s little question that it broke again this week.


Anonymous said...

Or the obscene use of God's name to justify winning a sports contest or being acquitted of a crime.

Which brings us to another view. On the day of Senator Kennedy's diagnosis, Mike Fleming of WREC (AM 60) went off on Kennedy for "killing Mary Jo Kopechne". Fleming couldn't forgive him. What cruel chutzpah!

Fleming and his kind are in the class of people who think they are right about everything and are "holier than thou". They think their God anoints them with blessings not available to the rest of us. They talk of forgiveness but don't practice what they preach. This is a big segment of the Memphis area's population and is killing our economic potential. The creative class isn't attracted to a closed society.

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