Today from The Free Press, two essays about martyrdom and mythmaking.
“In a scripted world carefully cribbed from real life, how do you solve a problem like Diana?” That’s what Kat Rosenfield asks about the new season of The Crown, which portrays the princess’s death, an event that has loomed over the show since it debuted seven years ago. Now that we’ve reached Diana’s final days, the writers have treated the royal less like “a flesh-and-blood human than a sort of sexless sage.” They have “tried to turn her into a hero, for reasons understandable and even arguably noble,” Kat argues. “But in doing so, they’ve transformed a flawed and fascinating woman into a mawkish caricature of goodness, one that elides reality.” Read Kat’s full story here.
John F. Kennedy was assassinated sixty years ago, an event that gave rise to the American conspiracy theory, argues Phil Tinline in our second piece today. “The shots that rang out around the world on November 22, 1963, still echo through American politics,” he writes.
Phil explains how the murder sealed the Kennedy myth, transforming the man into a metaphor for American greatness that has shaped every presidential campaign since. And while Kennedy has become, for some, the platonic ideal of a president, his death birthed a dangerous conspiratorial tendency on the left, the right, and even in the center. As Phil writes: “Kennedy’s warning stands: beware ‘convenient scapegoats’ for threats, shocks, and problems.”
From two lives cut short to four lives well-lived.
This week, Henry Kissinger, a titan of the twentieth century, died at 100; Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, died at 93; Charlie Munger, the brilliant investor and famous font of no-nonsense business insight, died at 99; and Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady who died last month at 96, was laid to rest in Plains, Georgia.
We’ve read many illuminating appreciations of these historic figures in recent days. Among the ones we recommend: Niall Ferguson on Kissinger; Jason Zweig on Charlie Munger; one of the many great obituaries of O’Connor; and an interview with a longtime friend of Carter, Anne Mahoney Robbins.
This quartet leaves behind so much wisdom not just on diplomacy or investing or law or politics—but on how to live.
Plenty more ink will be spilled about Kissinger’s perhaps complicated legacy. Did he, as the British historian Andrew Roberts maintained in his tribute, “save us from a much worse world?” Or was he, as Christopher Hitchens famously argued at book-length, a war criminal? These arguments raged for years during Kissinger’s life, and will continue long after his death. For today we’re sticking to a less contentious question: How did this exercise-shy, bratwurst-loving workaholic make it to 100? Kissinger’s son, David, addressed this question on the occasion of his father’s 100th birthday earlier this year.
David’s two-part answer: first, an “unquenchable curiosity” that kept him “dynamically engaged with the world. His mind is a heat-seeking weapon that identifies and grapples with the existential challenges of the day.” Second, “his sense of mission. Although he has been caricatured as a cold realist, he is anything but dispassionate.”
In her public life, Rosalynn Carter expanded the role of First Lady, helping to make it the public-facing role we know today. But perhaps her most important lesson comes from her private life, and the strength of her 77-year marriage to Jimmy. For a moving portrait of the final chapter of that marriage, read this recent piece by Peter Baker.
From Charlie Munger: an exhortation to avoid self-pity. As a young man, Munger had plenty of reasons to feel sorry for himself. At 29, Munger was divorced and in dire financial straits. At 31, he lost his nine-year-old son to leukemia. At 56, a botched surgery meant he later lost an eye (and so learned braille in case anything went wrong with the other one). And yet, he would go on to become the genius business partner to Warren Buffett.
In a commencement speech at USC Law in 2007, Munger said that “generally speaking, envy, resentment, revenge, and self-pity are disastrous modes of thought.” He continued: “Self-pity gets pretty close to paranoia and paranoia is one of the very hardest things to reverse. . . I don’t care what the cause, your child could be dying of cancer, self-pity is not going to improve the situation.”
And finally, some pithy advice from Sandra Day O’Connor, via a former clerk. Her secret to happiness in three words: “work worth doing.”
Have a great weekend.
Oliver Wiseman is an editor and writer for The Free Press. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @ollywiseman.
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