The Onion’s Tragic Headline

“Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician To Be Missed”

viewless…says the headline currently being sported at the Onion, the web’s preeminent satirical website:

JOHANNESBURGFollowing the death of former South African president and civil rights leader Nelson Mandela today at the age of 95, sources confirmed that the revered humanitarian has become the first politician in recorded history to actually be missed. “Today we lost not only an international hero and a symbol of the resilient human spirit, but also the very first political figure ever who people actively wish was still alive and affecting world affairs,” said political historian Wallace M. Delaney of Columbia University…

The Onion’s rueful satire may well escape millions of Americans as old as 40, because it probably seems tragically accurate. I cannot imagine an earlier Onion running such a headline in, say, 1965, when Winston Churchill died. There were many justifiably and deeply admired political leaders on the scene then. Dwight D. Eisenhower was still alive; Bobby Kennedy was ascendant; LBJ had just engineered major advances in civil rights and social justice. There were U.S. Senators of dignity, ability and principle in both political parties–Mansfield, Dirkson, Muskie, Javits, McCarthy (Gene, not Joe), Smith, and others. Later there were other American leaders who showed courage, persistent skill, honesty and principle, but the last one I can recall is probably the late Pat Moynahan, the liberal academic who served with distinction as a Democratic Senator from New York.

He wasn’t just a politician, but a statesman. He spoke the truth, even inconvenient truths; he didn’t speak down to voters, or scale back his intellect and analysis of issues to gull the naive and ignorant. Nor did Moynihan cash in his influence for a plum lobbying job; he didn’t disgrace his office or the body in which he served. Daniel Patrick Moynihan left the Senate 13 years long ago, and even then, he seemed like the last of a dying  breed.

I don’t know why there are no leaders on the American scene who would immediately come to mind if one were determined to show why the Onion’s headline qualifies as satire rather than an indictment. A shining example of ethical leadership like Nelson Mandela only graces the world every couple of generations, if that often, but justly admired leaders  once flourished in the United States, as one would expect in a unique nation founded to embody the essential values of human rights and liberty. Now they appear to be extinct in our system, their places taken by small, conniving, dishonest and petty men and women.

That provides us with another reason to view the passing of Mandela with sadness and regret, as if his death were not enough.


Pointer: CNN

Graphic: Parker Hudson

9 thoughts on “The Onion’s Tragic Headline

  1. Interesting take on an interesting headline (love that Onion).

    I wonder, though, if you’re not viewing history with a little bit of revisionist glasses? While there are virtually no critics of Mandela to be found today, my recollection is there was no shortage of critics of most of the others you cite at their time of currency.

    The Kennedy’s were far from universally admired; J. Edgar Hoover was not alone in thinking Bobby a dangerous pinko, and don’t forget all the conspiracy theories that were grounded in right wing hatred of JFK. Eisenhower was, while not hated, viewed with great skepticism by many for his double-talk; those who graduated from Columbia heard tales of his do-nothing administration there.

    And Moynahan? I happen to share your admiration for him, but at the time there were plenty, from both right and left, who viewed him in various guises of negativity. The left thought him racist and retrograde, and the GOP couldn’t stomach his opposition to the death penalty and Iran-Contra.

    Finally, I presume you meant Eugene McCarthy and not Joseph McCarthy? Just checking…

    • You are right, of course. But the larger point is still true: Nobody would have gotten the Onion’s joke in 1965. All of those figures had detractors, but we knew that these were people of stature and principle.

      Gene, yes. A wonderful man whom I was lucky enough to have a one on one lunch with, by pure accident. One of my heroes—flawed as a leader, but still of the highest caliber.

  2. I’ve got news for you, Charles. There are a lot of people who don’t worship at the altar of a communist terror leader named Nelson Mandela. The only difference between him and another African killer-turned-statesman named Jomo Kenyatta is that Mandela probably isn’t responsible for as many deaths. But when they’re white or “unenlightened” non-whites, who cares?

      • To be clear, Mandela is justly celebrated for knowing how to use martyr status to accomplish political goals, knowing the power of symbolism and forgiveness, having a noble goal and possessing the courage, persistence, strength of character and leadership skill to head a movement and guide it to victory. That’s a lot, and worthy of admiration and respect.

        Pretending he was, in addition to all this, a paragon of virtue is unfair to him, us, and history.

        • To take a slightly odd digression, it is also unfair to the next generation who will have to fight injustice.

          They need to know that the price of admission to accomplishing good is not the impossible one of being a stainless saint. They need to know that their flaws don’t prevent them from achieving a noble goal. They need to know that they are the same species as the victors in good causes and just as able to proceed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.