Now they're dead, read the revised life

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THE GHOST of John F Kennedy has visited British politics since the death of John Smith. In one case, it was Paul Johnson, maintaining his maverick track record, informing readers of the Daily Mail that Tony Blair reminded him of the young JFK. But, more often, the comparison invoked has been the death of a politician as a national trauma.

Many politicians and journalists have declared themselves shocked by the apparent depth of public grief at the loss of the Labour leader. And it is this aspect of the tragedy that I want to examine.

The extent of the reaction has probably not been much exaggerated. I happened to be travelling around on Thursday and Friday, and there was a palpable aftershock in the atmosphere.

So, does the response to Mr Smith's death prove - as one repentant journalist suggested on Radio 4 last weekend - that the press had got it all wrong? That the nation had accepted John Smith as its next prime minister? This, I think, is a mis-reading of the grief, for the local election results a week before the leader's death had shown rather less enthusiasm.

What has happened is that two factors, not available to the Labour leader while living, came into play when he died. The first was retrospective recognition. The reason John F Kennedy went to Dallas - it is now generally forgotten - was that he was slipping in the polls. In death, he became a great president to many who had denigrated him alive. In my anecdotal experience, a number of people quite deeply affected by Mr Smith's death had no intention of voting for him. This is not hypocrisy, but a decent human response for, in all except the psychotic, opposition to a politician does not involve wishing him or her dead. Suppose it had been John Major - Britain's least popular Prime Minister in history - who had died young last Thursday. Would the press and public response have been 'good riddance'? Of course not.

The second posthumous alteration to John Smith's reputation involves the press. The morning-after coverage in the normally Tory-supporting press presented him as a genius, hero and moral paragon. It is impossible to think of a modern figure who was so tenderly remembered, still less one to whom the press were editorially opposed. These pieces must have had some impact on their readers, but they were freak pieces.

A sentiment frequently heard in recent days has been 'I never realised what a fine man he was'. But millions of pounds would have been spent - by the Conservative Party and the press - on ensuring that this conclusion had not been reached about the living Mr Smith. So the Tory-supporting newspapers, in general, lie about Labour leaders? Well, they play the game they are paid to, which is to rubbish Labour leaders. The rules were - in an interesting but temporary way - broken following Mr Smith's death. They will be in place again for his successor. The Sun may have said that Smith 'made Labour electable' - a significant admission - but it can simply announce that his replacement squandered the inheritance.

The possibility has also been raised that last week's tragedy will change forever the conduct of British politics, rendering it less vicious and self-interested. On this, I can offer an instructive example. On the day after the Hillsborough football disaster, in 1989, in which 95 spectators were crushed to death, I happened to attend a social event at which a number of sports journalists were present. One declared that football would never be played in England again. Another that it would not be played again that season. Two, while disputing these analyses, announced that they personally would never be able to attend a football match. Each of these prophecies was rapidly disproved. Politics will follow the same swift cycle of recovery.

If the tangible national sadness of the last few days does not reveal a mass conversion to Labour policies - or a universal recognition of one politician's greatness - then how can it be accounted for? First, there is the general reminder of mortality, far more autobiographically resonant in this instance than in the case of assassinations. As Philip Larkin wrote in Ambulances, his poem about the universal death threat: 'The fastened doors recede. Poor soul / They whisper at their own distress'. The death of a frontline politician is particularly disturbing because there is no other human group that lives life so specifically in the future: at least half their thoughts, and the thoughts about them, concern what they will be, what they will do. Although there is much comment about stress and long hours, politicians are generally durable, as witnessed by the number of Westminster ancients - Callaghan, Healey, Heath - paying tribute to John Smith.

So we are not, I think, yet talking about the Conversion of England: either of its electorate, its press, its politicians. Since the advent of 24-hour television news, it has been common to observe that the sheer available weight of grim data desensitises us to death. This is true in terms of mass fatalities. Most of us can hear of a plane crash in a distant country with minimal interruption to our day. Think, even, of how quickly the buried bodies at Cromwell Street slip from the mind, after a few days out of the news. But, oddly, we seem to have become more sensitised to individual death.

A jet, full of people going on holiday, crashes, and no one says that such risks are not acceptable in the pursuit of sand and sun. But a single racing driver or boxer, far more personally cognisant of the possibility, is killed, and precisely this argument is put. At the same time, the much-remarked newspaper trend since the mid-Eighties for critical and even sarcastic obituaries has passed away. The deaths of Bobby Moore, Brian Redhead, Brian Johnston, Sir Matt Busby and Ayrton Senna prompted almost universal eulogies and - in the case of Redhead - a raw public mourning.

Anyone tempted to take the tributes for John Smith as a simple matter of truth might like to read those, last month, for Richard Nixon, a paranoid crook - as BBC 2's Watergate series is vitally reminding us - who managed to be remembered as a great statesman, taking advantage of a public and media mood of posthumous generosity. Smith and Nixon represented the polarities of political probity - and I hate to have them in the same sentence - but the 37th President's escape from his reputation is a reminder that public obituaries should be read in a context beyond the life they reflect. The mourning of Jack Kennedy was about far more than the man. So, too, is the reputation of John Smith.

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