Obituaries, 2013: Goodbye to eight who died

     Veteran White House journalist Helen Thomas asks a question of President Barack Obama during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, in this photo taken Thursday, May 27, 2010. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo, file)

    Veteran White House journalist Helen Thomas asks a question of President Barack Obama during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, in this photo taken Thursday, May 27, 2010. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo, file)

    “Out out, brief candle!” wrote Shakespeare. “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more.”

    True enough, but some political players in their brief time manage to strut quite well. Here’s a salute – in no particular order – to eight worthies who left us in 2013:

    Ed Koch, 88. Hard as it may be for young people to believe, Times Square wasn’t always a safe tourist mecca, Brooklyn wasn’t always a haven for hipsters and starter families, and the NYC streets weren’t always festooned with bike lanes. Koch took over as mayor when the city was in the deepest pits, circa 1977, and seeded its eventual revival (by pulling it back from the brink of bankruptcy, and reforming key services). His motor mouth ultimately got the best of him – in the late ’80s he said that most blacks were anti-Semitic, and that Jews “would be crazy to vote” for Jesse Jackson – but he was more substantive than his self-created caricature.

    C. Everett Koop, 96. A big shot at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who later served as Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General, Koop was one of the first high-ranking feds to acknowledge and talk frankly about the AIDS epidemic. The risk of AIDS, he wrote in 1986, could be sharpoly reduced via the use of condoms; he called on Americans to show compassion for victims, most of whom were gay men and intravenous drug users; he urged that Americans not use AIDS “as an excuse to discriminate against any group or individual.” Conservatives were infuriated. Koop told me in a 1987 interview, “You’d have to be unusual to enjoy seeing yourself vilified….But I’m a health officer talking facts.”

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    Helen Thomas, 92. She started covering national politics in the ’50s – when most women were persona non grata in the press corps. She was the first woman to head the Washington bureau of United Press International (UPI, RIP), and the first to breach the men-only membership of the journalists’ Gridiron Club. But she was no establishment toady; she tortured presidents and press secretaries of both parties. She got shriller with age (she retired after being caught on video saying that the Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine”), but I’ve always loved the (true) story about the time she confronted Richard Nixon’s flak on Air Force One – this was in the early days of Watergate – and told him: “Lies, we get nothing but lies. And some day those lies are going to catch up with this administration.”

    Frank Lautenberg, 89. The five-term New Jersey senator had an ego that could suck oxygen out of a room. I dealt with him when I was reporting on tobacco policy in 1997, and that’s how it felt face to face. But that’s not a knock on the guy. He just exuded Presence, and relished being on stage. And unlike a lot of senators, who just talk the talk, he got stuff done – like tightening the gun laws, the drunk-driving laws, and (perhaps most notably) banning cigarette smoking on all commercial airline flights. Whenever you sit on a plane with your fellow sardines, take note that you’re spared all second-hand smoke, and thank Frank.

    Tom Foley, 84. At an autumn memorial service, a rival Republican lauded Foley for his fairness and his willingness to indulge the opposition. Foley, as a Democratic House Speaker, had nurtured that kind of environment; the Republican said: “We were too conditioned by our personal and political upbringing to assume that we had the market cornered on political principle or partisan superiority.” Which I suppose makes Foley sound as archaic as an eight-track cassette. But he also fought when he deemed it necessary. In 1994, he supported an assault weapons ban – which didn’t sit well with his gun-friendly constituency in Washington state. He warned President Clinton that “many of us will not survive” the ’94 midterms. Sure enough, his 30-year House career was snuffed. But today, that (now defunct) assault weapons ban looks better with each new massacre. As does Foley.

    Harry Byrd Jr., 98. By the time Byrd was ensconced in the U.S. Senate during the ’70s, he was as archaic as an eight-track cassette. He was a stubborn scion of the old Virginia (a segregated society dominated by white racist  Democrats), at a time when the state was slowly making its transition to the new Virginia we see today (racially diverse, and increasingly dominated by progressive Democrats). Byrd quit the Democrats, became an independent, and clung to the old ways as long as possible – even opposing the ’82 renewal of the Voting Rights Act, which safeguards black balloting, on the grounds that it was “unwise for the federal government to dominate a state’s electoral process.” But history passed him by. In the words of Virginia political analyst Larryy Sabato, Byrd “represented in vivid fashion the transition of the Democratic Party from a conservative-dominated organization to one that regularly nominated moderates and liberals.”

    Lee White, 90. As an assistant attorney general under JFK, he was a key backstage player during the civil rights turbulence of the early ’60s. He had the thankless task of (a) mollifying the activists who felt that Kennedy was dragging his feet, and (b) nudging Kennedy to walk faster. White sent memos to JFK about the government’s dearth of diversity, like this one about fed hiring in Nashville: “four Negroes in the 405-man Treasury Department offices; two of 249 Agriculture employes; no Negroes working in Labor and Commerce department offices…” Later, he was instrumental in passage of the ’64 Civil Rights Act and the ’65 Voting Rights Act, and wrote in his memoirs that government “can and should strive to improve the lot of its citizens….I even believe it is possible there could be a Republican administration that would espouse and try to achieve those goals.” Over to you, GOP.

    Jack Germond, 85. One of the great old-school, shoe-leather political reporters (syndicated columnist, faux-grouchy TV talking head, co-author of numerous campaign books), he had no pretense, no vanity, and no patience for BS. He titled his memoirs Fat Man in the Middle Seat. He deadpanned, “It turns out that I have not made the world safe for democracy” – which was fine with him: “I was a reporter because it was fun.” He would’ve relished covering a potential Hillary-Christie. The rest of us will have to have fun in his stead – and keep the candle burning.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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