A Muskie Moment

Do you remember your President Nixon? Yes? How about Ed Muskie, the onetime Democratic frontrunner, whose teary-eyed speech in response to attacks on his wife lost him the 1972 nomination? Muskie claimed that the supposed tears were merely melted snowflakes but it was too late; the damage was done. Readers too young to recall this bit of ancient history might usefully compare Muskie's undoing to the Howard Dean "scream" that may have had something to do with the room's acoustics.

But I digress. I bring up Muskie because of the news reports that in awarding custody of the remains of Anna Nicole Smith to the guardian ad litem of her orphaned daughter, Florida judge Larry Seidlin broke down in tears. Seidlin was moved by the realization that the media circus that his courtroom had become had been par for the course for Ms. Smith. "She had to live all her years under this kind of exposure,” Seidlin reportedly said. “I just get a week and half and this thing wore me out.”

Perhaps Judge Seidlin--about whom I know nothing other than what I have read about in the Smith case--is just a teary guy. But if not, might I suggest that there is something just a bit odd about breaking down in this particular case? Judges hear testimony about tragedies on a daily basis. One might expect a judge now and then to break down after presiding over a trial involving a brutal murder, rape or assault. Or perhaps a moistened eye might be appropriate (or at least understandable) when a judge must sentence a low-level criminal (a drug mule, say) to decades in prison under a statutory scheme that gives her no discretion to impose a lighter sentence. But what is so terribly tragic about the choice of what plot of earth will house the remains of a woman already gone?

To be clear, my quarrel is not primarily with Judge Seidlin. What is perhaps most disturbing about this story for me is its resonance with the reaction of the British public to the death of Princess Diana. I confess that I found even that reaction mystifying but at least it's explicable as the breaking of a kind of emotional dam. Brits, having for so long been conditioned to keeping a stiff upper lip, finally lost it when they lost the "People's Princess." Every premature death is, of course, a tragedy, but with thousands of Americans dead and wounded in a counterproductive war, not to mention much larger numbers of Iraqi civilians having suffered a similar fate, is it not the tiniest bit self-indulgent to focus our national grief so overwhelmingly on this one celebrity?