Watching and reading reactions to Margaret Thatcher’s death reminded me of this heavily paraphrased exchange from about 10 years ago:
Me: “Ronald Reagan was a popular president, but he did a lot of things that weren’t so good.”
Her: “You can’t talk like that about Reagan! He’s sick and can’t defend himself.”
That’s right: I was a meanie for criticizing Reagan’s conscious and oft-trumpeted decisions as president, which was exactly the same thing as cracking jokes about Alzheimer’s in Nancy’s bedroom. It was apparently cheap of me to tarnish Reagan’s legacy then, unlike that time in 1987 when the president successfully justified his dismantling of the air traffic controllers’ union at my friend’s barbecue.
And this dialogue went down before he died. Afterward? Forget it.
Reagan’s 2004 death raised an interesting question that the death of Thatcher has resurrected: Is it OK not to mourn the death of a polarizing public figure?
Most people will say it’s an issue of time and place, and said time and place is not in the immediate aftermath of that figure’s death. That’s classy enough. But how many of us declared a moratorium on criticism when Osama bin Laden died? And who among us can’t think of living notorious figures we won’t miss when they kick it? Let’s be honest — we all want to be decent human beings in the face of mortality, but we all have our cap. Anyone who claims they don’t is in denial.
I believe it’s always appropriate to hold people accountable for their actions. Death may remind us that they’re people too, but one’s passing should never lead to a whitewash of their scorecard — especially when the people involved are political leaders. More than anyone else, they deserve to be judged by their deeds.
For my part, I neither mourn nor hail Thatcher’s passing. Being prime minister of the UK from 1979 to 1990, she was a blip in my burgeoning political conscience. I knew who she was as a child, but mostly I confused her name with Heather Locklear’s. (For example, at 9 I told my dad about a Frank and Ernest strip where Frank had a steamy dream about Locklear, but I said Thatcher’s name instead. I’m sure that left Dad perplexed.) Later I knew of her tenure as the Iron Lady and her legacy as an icon of conservative politics. Later still, I learned of numerous incidents that tarnished that iron.
So when I read that Thatcher’s death had touched off street celebrations in parts of England, I wasn’t particularly surprised (nor was I surprised at the praise from most corners). I would never dance in the street over anyone’s death, but I don’t blame people when they refuse to respect someone in death who didn’t respect them in life. To suggest that they must, is more insulting to the living than respectful to the dead.
Which brings me to Bobby Jindal. With his tax plan circling the drain, some are declaring his political career every bit as dead as Thatcher.
It’s a tempting diagnosis. Jindal rubbed many of us the wrong way long before he became governor — not just because of his unabashed neoconservatism, but also because he seemed to believe that the road to the White House was paved with scorched earth. He came off as that kid who fed the homeless to score points with the college admissions people, except for the part about feeding the homeless. And then Jindal got elected and proved he meant every word. The state I left in 2007 was far worse for the wear when I returned in 2011, and has continued to plummet exponentially since his baffling re-election that year. Even many of Jindal’s most ardent supporters can no longer justify the horrific cuts, the hostility toward public education and the naked greed behind his agenda. Once a favorite as the next Republican president, Jindal now polls lower than President Obama in Louisiana. That says far more about the fall of the former Golden Boy than it does about how highly Louisianans regard Obama.
Still, don’t draft the eulogy for Jindal’s career just yet. Even on life support, Candidate Jindal’s vitals remain: his incumbency, his intelligence, his roots, his fact that the GOP has no one else to parade in 2016. American memories are reliably short — even shorter when fear of a third Democratic term compels people to eagerly forgive and forget. Declaring Jindal finished is the fastest way to guarantee his resurrection. Those of us who have witnessed his decisions and their effects firsthand can never forget, nor let anyone else forget, just what a disaster he’s been for Louisiana.
But if time proves that this was indeed the end of the road for Jindal’s ambitions, I won’t be too upset. Just like Thatcher and Reagan before him, Jindal has cemented a polarizing legacy. We may mourn people when they die, but we shouldn’t mourn the death of bad politics.