I was looking out on Chesapeake Bay, sipping a chilled white wine and nibbling a pear plucked from a tree outside my window when I heard that Tim Russert was dead. I didn't know him, but like everyone else who follows politics, I recognized him as a media hero for our time. Media heroes -- reporters and pundits -- are omnipresent if not omniscient in our lives.
It was not always so. Once, poets were society's heroes, swains who sang sweet songs about love and life reflecting on questions of immortality. "Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil," wrote John Milton for a poet who died young. Through the ages it was the secular poets and religious preachers who brought us together in days for mourning. John Donne was both poet and preacher when he said, "Death, be not proud."
For those who mourn Tim Russert but never knew him, he was a symbol of the life cut short in a time when greater longevity promises greater possibility. His death, as death often does, caught us by surprise. We busy our minds with politics and other things to flee the deeper thoughts of mortality, and Tim Russert's death blocked that escape, at least for a moment. Instead of delivering the news, he became the news -- and we invested feelings of pity and fear along with our lamentations: "There but for the grace of God, go I."
He was, after all, a Baby Boomer, a member of that sociological cohort that once thought it could freeze youth in a bottle, never to trust anyone over 30. Boomers were no better than those before them at repealing the Biblical injunction that "it is appointed unto man once to die," though a lot of them have grown up to trust men and women ripened by time and experience. Our culture continues to obsess over today, taking no time to consider the morrow, and we're angered and frustrated when the grim reaper slashes our assumptions.
These reflections are easier away from the nattering and noise of the chattering class in Washington, where it's difficult to stop to watch an orange sunset, listen to the rapid flutter of a hummingbird's wing or dine leisurely on soft-shell crab freshly drawn from the Bay. The rhythms of life and death are different in the countryside -- that's why poets cast their elegies in a pastoral setting.
For most of us, the death of Tim Russert was not an intimate loss. We did not know him beyond his television presence, so we mourn for a larger-than-life symbol. "No young man," wrote the poet William Hazlitt, "believes he shall ever die." We've extended that notion to middle age and to the "young old," who make up the current demographic euphemism ("70 is the new 50"), respected mostly in Washington because the American Association of Retired Persons is one of the most powerful lobbies in town.
It's natural for the media to lionize one of their own. John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Matthew Arnold did that, too, in elegies once read by every schoolchild. In "Adonais," Shelley compares Keats to the God of the Old Testament and to Greek gods of the sun and fertility. Thomas Gray rebelled against mourning for those who enjoyed the "pomp of power," the rich and famous of the 18th century. In an "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," he dedicates a dirge to the homely plowman who plods his weary way on the pathways of life, observing that death is the great equalizer: "The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
In Washington, we argue endlessly over the problems of education and the quality of learning in our schools and universities. We emphasize the importance of competition in a global economy -- no one can overestimate the urgency of learning math and science. But we often forget the humanities and the emotional and intellectual bond forged between the culture and the individual by the written word. We diminish the need for broadening the mind through the creative genius of great poets and novelists. Academics often deconstruct fine writing into narrow political theory and reduce critical thinking to propagandistic blather.
In "The New Criterion," a magazine of intelligent criticism of the liberal arts, Joseph Epstein, who was once an English teacher, argues that reading great literature offers "useful knowledge into the mysteries of life." Literature provides exceptions that prove no rule in the human drama, but instead offer an enhanced appreciation for "the inestimable value of human liberty." A public death begets the universal perceptions of the poet.