Just before Christmas, Robert Bork died. My reaction surprised me. I paid attention, noting his age (85) and trying to recall details about his life.
I remembered a little about his failed nomination to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan in 1987, but much more about his involvement in Watergate, when he was part of my awakening to the political world.
He played a key role in an event in 1973 later known as the Saturday Night Massacre. It was a juicy story at the time but hard to summarize now.
No one died. What happened was that President Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox because Cox had subpoenaed the president’s secretly-recorded audiotapes.
Attorney General Elliott Richardson refused Nixon’s order and resigned. His deputy followed suit. That left Robert Bork, then solicitor general, who fired Cox.
I was 26 years old and following the Watergate story closely, my first intense interest in politics, and Richardson’s ethical choice to resign stayed with me.
Bork stayed with me, too, and I wasn’t surprised when he came across as unfeeling in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings 15 years later. I was relieved when he didn’t get the position.
But last month I felt a twinge when I heard about his death. Why?
A friend remarked that each of us grows up in what she called our “cultural surround.” Our cultural surround is the sum total of public events and public people that touch us and influence how we think and feel.
My cultural surround, which began with the usual young people’s books and movies, widened suddenly with the death of John F. Kennedy when I was 16. In the next six years, the Beatles blew open the music world, the civil rights movement got powerful, and a man walked on the moon. In my mid-20s, I watched the Watergate hearings.
Many public figures became part of my cultural surround, but when I write them down, they’re an odd assortment: familiar people like Martin Luther King, Mary Tyler Moore, Leonard Bernstein, and Billie Jean King and lesser-known people, like writer Paul Monette, singer Françoise Hardy, and psychologist Alice Miller.
On the surface they don’t have much in common, but they shared being older than I am, some by 10 years, some by much more. What’s happening to them now shouldn’t surprise me, but it does.
The first is that young people don’t know them.
When I told my daughter I was going to hear Harry Belafonte, 85, at the Mondavi Center last Thursday, I had to explain who he was. (She said later that she would have recognized “Day-O” if I sang a few bars.)
The second thing is that these people are dying.
Many figures in my “cultural surround” have, in fact, been dead for some time. But what I see now is an acceleration of loss. People I connected with in my formative adult years, my 20s, 30s, and 40s, are now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and they’re passing on. Every few days I hear another familiar name: Marvin Hamlisch. Neil Armstrong. Ravi Shankar.
When I read or hear the announcement of a death, I have a sharp emotional reaction, like when a bird hits the window. Then I struggle to remember details about the person. I try to put dates to my memories. I conjure up a face.
Media photos help me. When Nora Ephron died last June, I finally learned what she looked like, but I already knew a lot about how she thought from her movies like “Silkwood” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” and from her novel, “Heartburn,” which is loosely based on her failed marriage to Carl Bernstein.
Carl Bernstein, still living, was one of the reporters who uncovered the story of Deep Throat, the shadowy, code-named informant of the Watergate era.
In this way, Ephron winds back to my cultural surround, where Watergate played a big part.
I often look up details of a newly-deceased person’s life. I want to remember celebrities who were important to me, either because they gave me pleasure (music, movies) or because they made me think (politicians, writers). I want to remember what I was doing when they came to my attention.
I know, of course, that as I grow older I will be more frequently saddened by deaths of people my age, but I didn’t anticipate that the deaths of people somewhat older, the inhabitants of my cultural surround, would affect me, too — even people I didn’t like much, like Robert Bork.
Their deaths make my own death feel closer, but that’s not what I dwell on.
Rather, I notice that my relationship to the world is shifting, that some of the people who formed me are gone and even forgotten.
Events, people and details that fill my memory but not the memories of younger people, are being superseded by current events. My cultural surround is disappearing into a larger scale of human time, diluted, like a river that reaches the sea.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org