“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 rereading 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: 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 on installment. 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 obit when the leader is close to death or should they hold back, publishing mini-obits 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 redimmed, 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.