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Column: When death comes in installments

By Jack Shafer

(Reuters) - "Inconsiderate to the last, Josef Stalin, a man who never had to meet a deadline, had the bad taste to die in installments," wrote New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling in the magazine's March 28, 1953 issue.

His piece deserves re-reading every time a Hugo Chávez, a Margaret Thatcher, or now, a Nelson Mandela, drag their feet in their last approaches to their final reward.

The lengthy illness of a former or current world leader tends to agitate the hard-core news hounds. Their attitude is if you're going, please go. As Liebling observed, only 10 percent of the obituary will contain any real news anyway, the remainder is just a history lesson or clip job. The unexpected and sudden death of a world leader, preferably one in power, has greater appeal to the newshound, if only because there's news in the surprise. Fifty years on, we still hunger for details about John Kennedy's life and death, and Abraham Lincoln's obituaries will never stop entertaining us.

World leaders do readers a disservice when they die in installments. Their obituaries, which newspapers pre-write and store in their pantries for that special day, can be refreshed a limited number of times before they start to read like Wikipedia entries.

When dying or aged leaders cheat death or push their way back into the news, they dilute their prepared obituaries. Liebling succinctly expressed this press corps's lament in his Stalin complaint. Should they publish the meat of the full obituary when the leader is close to death or should they hold back, publishing mini-obituaries in the form of news stories, columns and recollections? The leader who won't die on a schedule forces journalism interruptus upon both the press and news consumers.

The 75-year-old Stalin dithered for almost a week, sinking deeper into his deathbed after a stroke had punched him to the floor unconscious. His staff, which had found him on the carpet in the early morning, moved him to the sofa which he used as his bed. Doctors fixed leeches to his neck and head, x-rayed him, and injected him with drugs, as his daughter would later write.

The partially paralyzed Stalin clamored back aboard the ship of consciousness long enough to loudly instruct his bodyguard to bring his car, but then the lights re-dimmed, his eyelids opening sporadically as if attached to a shorted connection.

The hemorrhage that had stilled Stalin would not kill him, forcing the press to decide, as Liebling put it, to either use their stockpiled obituaries or dribble out his legacy based on the meager reports the Soviet government was issuing. "He's Dying," the New York Post exclaimed with a big picture and big type, and reporters and columnists regarded their crystal balls to determine who would next lead the Soviet Union and whether that would mean peace or war.

Stalin lasted only a couple days until he became feed for the obituarists's banquet. His daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, later described the scene in Life magazine. "He literally choked to death as we watched," she later wrote. Stalin lifted his hand in a way that his daughter interpreted as a curse on those standing near his bedside. His final tide went out, freeing the press to have its complete say.

Today's medicines and procedures might have given Stalin the sort of longevity that seems par for leaders these days. Nelson Mandela, for example, has beaten death so many times he may never die. Even Twitter tried and failed to kill him in June.

But every minute a man in his 90s lives may be his last, so journalists have been writing his pre-obituaries for several years, stretching the pre-death obituary in ways that Liebling would never have anticipated.

In December 2012, the New York Times's Bill Keller penned a living obituary of Mandela's after noting the former president's hospitalization in a piece titled "South Africa Since Mandela." Since then, the "Nelson Mandela Chronology" in the Times Web archives has produced a running Mandela obituary with another 27 pieces collected from the Times about the leader and his legacy.

"Legacy" is the key word in death-by-installment stories. A newspaper reporter who uses the L word about an aged leader is either signaling his subject's impending demise or expressing his unspoken preference that the leader shove off as soon as possible. Or both.

As much as he deserves it, the 86-year-old Fidel Castro for some reason doesn't merit his own chronology page in the Times web site. A clerical oversight, I'm sure, because the press and the rumor mill has repeatedly buried and exhumed him in the last decade. In October 2012, Castro compared rumors of his death to the untruths spread about him by the "imperialist propaganda" machine since the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

Castro may have missed his peak journalistic moment to die. Unlike Mandela, he is not revered around the world, and while Mandela's stock has risen, Castro's has been delisted. Maybe that's why the Times hasn't granted him a chronology page. His story is over and the verdict and obituaries have been mostly written.

Margaret Thatcher's late-life dementia, which resulted in a low-profile exit compared to Mandela and Chávez, informs this slim Times chronology. Dementia, a kind of living death, imposes writer's block on reporters who ordinarily write with no inhibitions about the living or the dead. Either good manners or superstition keeps them from taking the casket measurements of leaders who have quietly fallen into mental limbo. Journalism craves action and ignores the voice. Thatcher's silence had the effect of silencing the press, to the extent the press can ever be silenced. Her death, of course, broke the spell, allowing both celebrators and grave dancers to attend her journalistic funeral.

The long, slow death of Hugo Chávez got Mandelaesque play, as the Times's chronology attests. The press reported rumors that the Venezuelan leader had met death or was snuggling in its arms in April 2012, December 2012, January 2013, and early March 2013 before the Times finally bestowed upon him the genuine article, a March 6 newspaper obituary.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wouldn't take Chávez's funeral notices for an answer, predicting his friend would, like Jesus and the Hidden Imam, rise from the dead.

Whether immortality would relieve the journalism profession's anxieties about sluggish death or only compound the problem, I cannot address in this column. I haven't had much success when dealing in hypotheticals. Chávez must take the first step, then I'll follow. When he does, I'll answer the question, Are newspapers ready for rebirth announcements?

(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

(Jack Shafer)

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