Friday, December 29, 2006

Death Comes In Threes?

"Death comes in threes," somebody once told me.

I believed them.

I was stoned and they made some point about three famous people dying that week. Then they explained that three famous people had died around the same date in the recent past. They sounded convincing. I didn't care.

Then I eventually heard someone else say it. "Death comes in threes!"

It's sort of an adage, I guess.

It's a remark we make to help ourselves feel more comfortable about death.

In actuality, there is some empirical evidence to prove that death does not come in threes. The fact is that more than three people die every two seconds!

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's World Vital Events Per Time Unit 2006, 1.8 people die every second, globally. A tad less than "death comes in threes."

That's 105 people per minute! Just a tad more than "death comes in threes."

So . . . death doesn't come in threes; but it is intriguing when more than one famous person dies during the attention span of an average Western person in an industrialized nation.

This holiday season, there were a number of deaths announced. Most notable were James Brown and Gerald Ford.

Others who died this festive holiday season?

Dennis Linde, who wrote "Burning Love," which was Elvis Presley's last hit record. Linde was 63 and succumbed to a rare lung disease.

Carlos Rivera, a/k/a Carl Blaze, a New York hip-hop DJ whose body was riddled with thirteen bullets. He was thirty years old.

Frank Stanton, the former president of CBS. He was 93 and left no immediate survivors. An innovator during the advent of television broadcast, Stanton shocked the media world by broadcasting CBS commercial-free for the four days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

So, when that short list of five people (Hardest Working Man in Show Business, former US President, Songwriter, DJ, and television executive) is culled from the 423,092, we still do not get three; nor do we account for almost half-a-million additional dead people.

So, death does not come in threes.

I want to return to two of those deaths. The deaths of James Brown and Gerald Ford.

They really are the big names on the list. At least James Brown is a big name. Gerald Ford is a moderately big name. (It's possible that Frank Stanton, the previously mentioned former president of CBS had a bigger impact on the United States than Gerald Ford ever did.) But, for the sake of discussion, we will consider the Thirty-Eighth President of the United States a BIG NAME.

After all, it was Gerald Ford who pardoned Richard Nixon of all his crimes. Well, he pardoned him of the crimes he was accused of. Ford couldn't pardon him for the war crimes he committed, because he was never charged with those crimes. Actually, Ford's pardoning of Nixon was pre-emptive, if I recall correctly, because no law enforcement agency had yet unsealed any indictments against the former President before Ford issued the Presidential pardon. A pre-emptive tactic. Sort of like bombing a heavily-populated city in a country with whom you have just signed a peace treaty.

But, I digress!

I have a questions: Which death has had a greater impact on America, James Brown or Gerald Ford?

Follow-up question: Which man had a more important impact on America, James Brown or Gerald Ford?

Both spent time in the White House. Ford as the resident, Brown as a guest of President Ronald Reagan.

Both lives were dramatically impacted by drug abuse: James Brown was imprisoned for crimes committed while loaded on drugs and being in possession of drugs, and Ford is the most famous spouse of a drug addict (he is more famous than Kurt Cobain, I think).

Ford's widow is Betty Ford, the woman for whom the world's most famous drug rehabilitation program is named. "Going to Betty Ford" is one of those remarks that everyone understands. And everyone knows that you are not going to actually see the widow of the Thirty-Eighth President. In many ways, the late President's widow might be the most famous woman in the Western World. Is that part of Gerald Ford's legacy. Famous husband of a drug addict?

Certainly, nobody remembers him as the Representative from Michigan, where he served 1949 - 1973, when he replaced Spiro Agnew as Vice-President. That's a pretty impressively long career in the House! Ford was an important member of the Warren Commission, which was empowered by President Lyndon Johnson to cover-up the assassination of President John Kennedy. Ford performed admirably.

Upon becoming President and pardoning his predecessor, Ford also issued a conditional amnesty for Vietnam-era draft dodgers who had fled to Canada. This pardon laid the foundation for the unconditional amnesty that found the light of day during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter (with whom he was close friends) that followed.

This little nugget is lost in the current adulation of Ford; and it might be the only progressive idea put forth to a nation whose heart and soul were broken by a long immoral war, a staggering economy, the strife of social and racial change, and an insipid fear of Communism.

If Ford is to be remember in a positive light for anything. Let it be his institution of conditional amnesty for draft-dodgers.

Prior to his death, Ford discussed the current American President and the War in Iraq, with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post:

"Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction," Ford said. "And now, I've never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do."

In a conversation that veered between the current realities of a war in the Middle East and the old complexities of the war in Vietnam whose bitter end he presided over as president, Ford took issue with the notion of the United States entering a conflict in service of the idea of spreading democracy.

"Well, I can understand the theory of wanting to free people," Ford said, referring to Bush's assertion that the United States has a "duty to free people." But the former president said he was skeptical "whether you can detach that from the obligation number one, of what's in our national interest." He added: "And I just don't think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security."

It is important to note that Rumsfeld was Ford's Chief of Staff, and Cheyney was Runsfeld's assistant! Woodward agreed to hold publication of the interview until after Ford's death; still, I think it is important to note that even at the highest ranks of the Republican Party, the current Administration has had no support for the War in Iraq!

And CBS' coverage of Ford's death? While ABC and NBC interrupted programming with special reports, CBS opted for a ticker crawl along the bottom of the screen. Wouldn't want to interrupt a Letterman re-run! So, forty years earlier, this network suspended four days of commercial revenue to cover the death of a president, but in 2006 they couldn't be bothered to interrupt a re-run! Times change!

And James Brown? Huge! James Brown was one of the most famous performers of all time. He released all of his 100+ LPs directly into the Hot 100!

I wrote about the James Brown of my youth earlier in the week, and my friend Adam pointed out that the concert I discussed is the opening discussion of the book Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas. Brown's concert is credited with preventing citywide rioting during that tension-filled time of American urban race wars. I did not know that the concert held historical significance for others . . . I just thought I was really lucky to have seen it!

James Brown touched the lives of many people. I think he touched more people than Gerald Ford could have.

"Papa's Got A Brand New Bag," "Super Bad," "I Got The Feeling," "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and scores of other songs are incessantly sampled and played everywhere around the world. Everywhere. I would hazard the estimate that James Brown songs are known by
over a billion people, and I would also hazard the guess that there are not a billion people that know about Ford (unless you then count him in the context of his wife's life story, which I will not).

We have seen James Brown in a suit and a pompadour on the silver screen and in underwear and stringy greasy hair on a mug shot. His entire life has been lived in our view.

I recall his performance with The Famous Flames in Ski Party, a ski lodge movie a la beach movie, that also featured Lesley Gore. Hilariously out of place, Brown was (as always) the consummate professional and showman.

James Brown has been everywhere! His entry at is rather lengthy and impressive.

James Brown influenced everybody.


If the question is: whose death has the greatest impact on the world, Gerald Ford's or James Brown's? The answer is "James Brown's!"

(The following was added at 7:39 AM)

I forgot to mention that a colleague left our office in Midtown Manhattan at 11:30 A.M., yesterday, made it to the Apollo Theater, in Harlem by twelve Noon, and was through the line to pay her respects to James Brown by 3:30 P.M. She was back in the office by four! I was more than just a little bit envious of her outing.

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