Forty years after the Summer of Love, the summer of mourning is coming to a close.
Ed McMahon. Farrah Fawcett. Walter Cronkite. Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Dominick Dunne. It's hard to believe they've all passed in a matter of weeks. None, however, have proven more complex in death than Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy.
Many people had a difficult time reconciling Michael Jackson's disjointed legacy in the aftermath of his passing. On one hand, he had been the most famous musician in the world, an icon who had entertained tens of millions since he was in grade school.
On the other, he died broke financially and physically a grown man who locked himself in a place called Neverland and invited young boys to join him.
In the hours after Jackson's death, I remember wondering where the most troubling part of his life the allegations of child molestation would ultimately fit into the coverage of his death. Specifically, how long would it take the obituary writers to mention those allegations?
I soon had the answer. The Los Angeles Times got there in the fourth paragraph. The New York Times four paragraphs after that. The Washington Post didn't introduce that aspect of Jackson's life until paragraph 19.
Ted Kennedy's legacy is similarly complex. He has been feted from both sides of the aisle since his death. And rightfully so. He came from an exceedingly patriotic family and dedicated almost five decades of his life to public service. While Michael Vick forced us to contemplate second chances, Ted Kennedy certainly showed what can be done when they are afforded.
But he was indeed a man of well-documented "personal and political failings," as the Boston Globe noted in the lead of its obit. None were more infamous or damaging than the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick. Their treatment? The Globe made mention of what transpired in the fifth paragraph of its obituary. The Associated Press and the New York Times waited for paragraphs 12 and 15, respectively.
I shouldn't be surprised that callers to my radio program have lined up on two opposing sides this summer. After Jackson's death, people were divided among those who dismissed him as a freak or a pervert, and those whose devotion to his music could overcome any question of morality or character. They left no room for any middle road. The question last week was similar: How to define Sen. Kennedy by his legislative accomplishments or Chappaquiddick?
All of which spurred me to check the obituaries of other noted Americans whose lives and legacies were flawed.
This week, the Los Angeles Times took 12 paragraphs before mentioning former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit in Dominick Dunne's obituary. (Condit sued Dunne for $11 million after the writer had implicated the congressman in the disappearance of his intern Chandra Levy. They settled in 2005.)
The Washington Post first mentioned Watergate by name in the fifth paragraph of Richard Nixon's obit.
When Anna Nicole Smith passed in 2007, the New York Times discussed her drug addiction in paragraph eight.
I can't help but wonder when President Clinton's obituary will introduce Monica Lewinsky. How will Pete Rose's gambling admissions, Michael Vick's dog fighting, and O.J. Simpson's slow-speed chase stack up against the rest of their lives and accomplishments?
In broader terms, the question is this: How should we treat the conflicted legacies of our deceased icons?
I posed that question to Ann Wroe, the obituaries and briefings editor at The Economist and co-author of "The Economist Book of Obituaries" last year. It's a subjective standard, she told me, but one that depends on how significant an individual's crime or flaw really is. Wroe deemed Chappaquiddick a major one. The Lewinsky affair? "Really nothing much," she said.
"When I write an obituary I try to see it as much as I can through the eyes of the subject. And therefore, I tend to present these incidents as much as I can through the eyes of the person who's to blame for them," she told me.
"With public figures you have more license to dig up the past if you like. I think you should do so. It's made a difference to American history that, for example, Teddy Kennedy didn't become president. And why didn't he? Because he drove off a bridge."
Her words reminded me of something Walter Cronkite, who delivered countless obituaries himself before he was eulogized last month, once said. "Beyond being timely, an obituary has a more subjective duty, to assess its subject's impact. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were presidents who died in office. They were works in progress, but when a person lives long enough, history gains a sort of cooling off that brings perspective. It merely awaits the proper hour."
Unlike his brothers, Ted Kennedy lived long enough to allow us to gain that perspective on his life. And unlike Ted Kennedy, Michael Jackson did not.