COLUMN: Are flawless legends born from famous deaths?

By U-Wire

When news of Gerald Ford’s death arrived over Winter Break, I shuddered in anticipation of the media blitz to follow. Sure enough, what ensued was a week of coverage declaring what a great, God-fearing, family-loving man Ford was — which I don’t doubt.

I did, however, find myself wondering what he actually ever did. I couldn’t recall learning anything about Gerald Ford other than he was never elected and was almost assassinated by a woman named Squeaky.

After researching his life, I have a great respect for Ford’s military and government service, but his tenure as president was wholly uninspiring. Ford was in office for less than two and a half years, but given the media coverage, one would think he’d been royalty.

Death, it seems, shoves people into tiny, convenient boxes in preparation for placing them on the shelves of history. Dead presidents are good men by default.

Ronald Reagan has been dead for three years already, yet it still seems generally unacceptable to criticize his administration’s policies. He was the chipper Gipper, period.

John F. Kennedy is practically a saint in this country. Camelot was a fantastic era, period. Richard Nixon would have been shoved into that same box if it hadn’t been for Watergate. He embarrassed the United States, however, and as such, is remembered as a shame. Forget about the EPA or OSHA because those don’t fit his bad guy image.

Instant sainthood is a phenomenon not just limited to world leaders. Even wholly unimportant celebrities are elevated upon their exit from the world. Take musicians, for example.

Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. Since then, the world has been inundated with what seems like thousands of tribute albums, re-releases, biographies, journals, posters and any other product that can possibly have the name “Cobain” slapped on it.

Kurt Cobain should have faded into obscurity with nearly all of the other ’90s grunge rockers; instead, he’s touted as some insightful legend because he snuffed himself. Lackadaisical, angst-ridden lyrics on par with the quality one would find in any high school creative writing class suddenly became art.

I don’t want to single out Cobain as far as celebrities go. Other musicians, such as Jim Morrison, Tupac Shakur, John Lennon and Aaliyah became untouchable after their sudden deaths as well.

Death doesn’t automatically make a person great, and it’s unfortunate that criticisms of many of the deceased are dismissed with a simple “How can you say that about the dead?” In popular culture, this is merely annoying.

The aforementioned Kurt Cobain would completely balk at his immense and unwarranted post-mortem attention. The tendency to over-glorify or vilify the dead can lead to gaps in history. For example, until I arrived at college, I had never even heard the suggestion that America’s founding fathers could have been anything less than perfect.

I completely understand the desire to honor the dead, but it is faulty to do so by excluding everything but the highlights of someone’s life. Likewise, I understand that it can be difficult to praise someone like Richard Nixon who made some serious missteps.

It doesn’t have to be, however. It is possible to mourn the loss of someone like JFK while acknowledging his womanizing actions and political failures, such as the Bay of Pigs.

It is also completely possible to acknowledge that Nixon was responsible for several good policies.

Life is filled with nuances, it is not just black and white. Remembering a full picture of the dead, as the grey people they truly were, is much more honest and respectful to their lives than remembering an idealized creation that never existed.