A weekly close reading of how the obituaries are treating the most significant deaths of the past seven days
The first obituaries for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez appeared almost immediately after his death Tuesday at 58. Which was no surprise: A gleefully anti-American socialist who ostentatiously cultivated ties with Cuba and Iran and used to call George W. Bush “Mr. Danger” and the devil, Chávez had been sick with cancer for nearly two years. If there was ever a figure to prepare an obit in advance on, it was him. (Or, of course, his mentor, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who somehow managed to outlive the 28-years-younger man.)
Close behind the obits, though, came an attempt by some conservatives in the U.S. to score domestic political points using the death of a Venezuelan strongman. Take anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and National Review writer Jonah Goldberg, who both made the same joke about how Chávez was a victim of the sequester (the point of which appeared to be to mock the idea that the sequester could hurt anyone). Or Breitbart.com editor Ben Shapiro, who warned that the “MSM” would treat Chávez “with respect today while downplaying his repression and brutality against Venezuelans.”
For the most part, though, that wasn’t true; no one reading the news of his death could miss the often ugly nature of the petrocratic state he called the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. “A bizarre governing apparatus subject to his whims coalesced around him,” The New York Times reports, one in which “state television cameras recorded nearly every public appearance, many of them to make surprise, unscripted announcements, often in his military uniform and paratrooper’s red beret.” After years of Chavismo, the Times says, a soaring homicide rate had turned “Caracas into one of the world’s most dangerous cities” and “hundreds of thousands of scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs and others in the middle class left Venezuela.” The U.K.’s center-left Guardian notes Chávez’s use of “thuggish, armed civilian groups” that helped “defend the revolution against enemies within and without,” including in the media, universities, and the Catholic Church. The Washington Post says Chávez “left Venezuela deeply polarized, his supporters lionizing him as a courageous rebel determined to take on the elites, and his foes painting him as a dangerous demagogue and strongman.” “Despite the vast sums Venezuela collected over the last decade from its energy reserves, Chávez was forced to borrow more than $38 billion from the Chinese,” The Los Angeles Times points out.
Only in Granma, the state-run paper in Cuba, home of the revolution that inspired Chávez, does he come off as a saint; the paper is filled with reports of tributes from around the world, including one from Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko (who called him a “faithful, close friend and brother of his country”).
But neither was Chávez the cartoonish dictator portrayed by his political opponents in the U.S., where the Bush administration had at least cheered on a failed 2002 coup against him. He was elected four times, albeit in procedures the League of Women Voters would probably not endorse. The New York Times, whose obit is the most sympathetic of any U.S. paper, calls him “a dreamer with a common touch and enormous ambition. He maintained an almost visceral connection with the poor, tapping into their resentments, while strutting like the strongman in a caudillo novel.” The Post explains how that connection manifested itself in real gains for the country’s poor: “He began neighborhood ‘missions’ that offered literacy training in poor areas, posted doctors in crowded slums and opened state-operated markets offering subsidized food.”
All the papers play up Chávez’s flamboyant anti-Americanism. He “particularly irked the United States by building a close alliance with Iran,” the Post says. He also “called President George W. Bush a terrorist for invading Afghanistan and the ‘devil’ during a United Nations speech,” the Los Angeles Times recalls.
Surprisingly, The Miami Herald’s report only briefly dwells on Chávez’s deep connection with Castro’s Cuba, which other publications explore in more detail. Venezuela would provide 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba, in exchange for doctors, other professionals, and Fidel’s love. “Chávez, younger than Fidel by nearly thirty years, soon became inseparable from the Cuban leader, who was clearly a father figure and a role model,” writes The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, who’s written three pieces for the magazine on Chávez. Anderson also explains that Chávez became a socialist long after the Soviet Union’s collapse because he read Les Miserables. “That, and listening to Fidel,” he writes.
Like any outsized strongman type, Chávez was also just plain weird. The New York Times and the Post both recall how he decreed Venezuela would change time zones to be 30 minutes behind its previous one; only the Post, though, notes that he did it because he thought it would have a “positive ‘metabolic effect’ on the population.” And, of course, most obits remember Chávez’s TV call-in show, Alo, Presidente, during which he “often broke into song and told jokes,” the Herald notes. “In 2010, all broadcasters were forced to show images of Chávez helping exhume the bones of his hero, Bolivar, on live television.” The revolution, in Venezuela at least, would be televised, after all.
MR. TOJO, I PRESUME?
When John J. Wilpers Jr. arrived at the house in the Tokyo suburbs where Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo was hiding out on September 11, 1945, he and his fellow Army intelligence officers heard a gunshot. The man they’d been sent to arrest to stand trial for war crimes had tried to commit suicide. “Forcing their way in, they found Tojo lying on a couch, his white shirt stained in blood from a bullet in his chest,” The New York Times recalls. “The physician standing nearby, intending to help Tojo die, refused Lieutenant Wilpers’s order to give Tojo medical help.” So they found another doctor and moved Tojo to a military hospital, where he recovered enough to face trial and, in 1948, execution.
The last surviving member of the team that caught Tojo, Wilpers died February 28 at 93. The Times reports that he never talked about the arrest with his family until decades later; when his son Michael read an account of the arrest as a college junior in 1976, Wilpers told him to “forget you ever saw it.” The nation nearly did the same: Wilpers’s commanding officer had recommended him for a Bronze Star in 1947, The Washington Post says, but “the paperwork apparently disappeared and remained lost until Mr. Wilpers made an inquiry nearly six decades later,” which he did only because he was curious what had happened to the medal so many years earlier. He finally got the award in 2010. Wilpers, though, must have been used to his work going largely unheralded by the general public: He was a career CIA officer after getting out of the Army.
ALL DEATH IS LOCAL
The Detroit News runs an obit (under the byline “Susan Whitall, Detroit News Music Writer”) of Bobby Rogers, “one of the founding members of the Miracles, the Motown group that shot singer/songwriter Smokey Robinson into worldwide fame.” Rogers died Sunday at 73. “His singing would have been enough, but the tall, bespectacled Rogers was the most graceful dancer in the group, and he proved to be a deft hand at songwriting as well.”
The Baltimore Sun features a tribute to George G. Litz, “former owner of one of the Baltimore area's largest brick distribution companies,” who died February 11 at 64. “One of his ‘great passions in life’ was the fact that his company supplied the brick that built Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium,” where the Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Ravens, respectively, play their home games.
The Philadelphia Inquirer recalls Paul J. Phillips, Jr., “whose Irish Catholic heritage was reflected in his longtime nurturing of Philadelphia's St. Patrick's Day Parade,” and who died February 26 at 89. “In 1960, Mr. Phillips joined the St. Patrick's Day Observance Association. He served as treasurer for 48 years and president from 1988 to 1990. In 1995, he led the parade as grand marshal.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“This car was kind of aimed at a market that didn’t really exist.” —Matt Anderson, the curator of transportation at the Henry Ford, a museum in Dearborn, Michichan, quoted in The New York Times’ obit of Ford designer Roy Brown Jr., who died February 24 at 96. Brown was the man behind the Ford Edsel, which, as the Times puts it, “became a synonym for bold, bad ideas not long after it was introduced in 1957” because it “lost hundreds of millions of dollars, became an enduring punch line and prompted an overseas transfer for its designer.” It was cheaper than Ford’s mid-range Mercury models, but touted as being the equal of its luxury Lincolns. It was big, even by late-’50s standards, and expensive, in the middle of an economic downturn. But even though it sold only half the 200,000 cars Ford expected, Brown had the last laugh: “For all its commercial struggles, the Edsel has been revered as a collectible for decades—and Mr. Brown drove one into his 90s.”