Small TalkSmall Talk

Small Talk

An eclectic roundup of incidents, events And oddities that catch our Editor’s eye.

Raymond J. de Souza
8 minute read
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Brian Mulroney spoke at Nancy Reagan’s funeral in March, as he did at President Ronald Reagan’s in 2004. He began, in 2016, as he did 12 years earlier, telling the same story, in the same words, about the conclusion of the presidential visit to Ottawa in 1987. Awaiting the arrival of their wives at the airport, “Reagan threw his arm around my shoulders and said with a grin, ‘You know, Brian, for two Irish guys, we sure married up!’” For those who remembered that he told the same tale at the first Reagan funeral and wondered if he had gotten his notes mixed up, Mulroney explained: “I mention this anecdote again because it reflects a unique Reagan reality; she really was always on his mind.” Indeed, she was. And it reflects a unique Mulroney reality, too. Even when paying tribute to others, Mulroney himself really is always on his own mind.


Hillary Clinton was at the Reagan funeral, not as a presidential candidate but as a former first lady. Her husband, Bill, didn’t go, likely because that would have been rather awkward at an occasion at which the dominant theme was marital devotion. Hillary Clinton reminds Small Talk of another former prime minister lately. In response to Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” the Clintons, both the former and future presidents, have been trying out this riposte: “America doesn’t need to become great again. It has always been great. We need to make America whole again.” Who knows what that means? Holding high office in America has been making the Clintons whole to the tune of hundreds of millions for some time now, so perhaps she wishes to return the favour. In 1998, Joe Clark improbably announced his decision to contest the leadership of the post-Mulroney rump of the Progressive Conservative Party. Surveying the smouldering wreck of his own party, Clark had a grand vision in mind: “I have returned to make the country whole again.” Joe Clark shared this much with his long rival Mulroney: neither had any doubt that he was indeed a great man upon history’s stage. If only they could deliver the eulogies at their own funerals, we would be reminded of that, again.


“When Reagan died in 2004, Mulroney became the first foreigner ever to speak at the State funeral of an American president. On Friday, he became the first foreigner to eulogize a U.S. first lady when he spoke at the funeral of Nancy Reagan.” So wrote L. Ian MacDonald, Mulroney’s speech writer from his first term. The old Mulroney hands still carry the torch, at the ready to exaggerate their former employer’s importance, much like the man himself was known on occasion to do. At Reagan’s funeral in 2004, another former prime minister did in fact speak – Margaret Thatcher. I suppose some people could forget Thatcher in favour of Mulroney, but I would suppose for most it would be the other way around.


As one would expect at a funeral for a lady in her 90s whose husband was elected president more than 35 years ago, the mourners were an elderly bunch. There was James Baker III, who ran the Republican presidential campaigns in 1976, 1980, 1988 and 1992, serving as chief of staff and secretary of the treasury to Reagan, then as secretary of state to George Bush the Elder. He’s a spritely 85. The question arises: Why isn’t he running for president? In 1980, Reagan was the oldest man ever elected, at 69, and his age was much discussed. In 2016, Hillary Clinton, 69, represents the tired, stale politics of yesteryear, while the banner of energy and youthful idealism in the Democratic Party is carried by Bernie Sanders, a vigorous 74. On the Republican side, the anti-establishment fury is being channelled by Donald Trump, who hits his Biblical – “Nobody reads the Bible more than me” – three score and ten in June. Back when Bill Clinton won the presidency, it was hailed as the arrival of the baby boomers in power. Did someone forget to tell them that it was time to depart?


Speaking of funerals, I had the opportunity to attend the funeral of the late American supreme court justice Antonin Scalia, about which there is more in “Sea to Sea.” In the days after his death, I saw this quotation from a commencement address Scalia gave in 1996. “Bear in mind that brains and learning, like muscle and physical skill, are articles of commerce,” he said to the graduating class of the College of William and Mary. “They are bought and sold. You can hire them by the year or by the hour. The only thing in the world not for sale is character. And if that does not govern and direct your brains and learning, they will do you and the world more harm than good.”


Much wisdom is on hand at graduations. That same year, Bill Cosby gave the commencement address at the University of Connecticut. About character, we have since learned rather more about Cosby’s than we knew then. “Supposedly there are no jobs,” he told the graduates, beginning on a somewhat down note. “What are you going to do? Well, your parents are always there. They will always be there for you. They’re strange people, parents. You could be worth $2 million a year and they still worry about you. When my mother died seven years ago, she left me $70,000 because she wanted something for me to fall back on. Had she been alive, I would have said, ‘Mom, it’s going to be a hell of a fall.’” Indeed, little did Mrs. Cosby know how great the fall would be. And one counts it a small mercy that she died before she had to behold it.


Journalism has fallen on hard times, a trend that has not left the religious press unaffected. So when in 2014 the Boston Globe announced that it was launching a Catholic news website, Crux, it was hailed as a rare bit of good news for the business of news about the Good News. The feature writer of Crux was the world’s leading English-language Vatican reporter, John Allen, Jr. It seemed that all was lining up for a promising new venture – a month after Crux launched, Pope Francis held the first of two combustible synods on the family and never stopped generating news, including a visit to the United States in September 2015. Then the Boston Globe itself became the subject of the Best Picture Academy Award-winning film Spotlight. So circumstances could not have been better, right? Wrong. On March 11, the Boston Globe announced that it was abandoning Crux. Allen would be free to continue with another sponsor, but the Globe would not be putting up any more money. The “financial model” didn’t work, the Globe said in words that might be an epitaph for the entire news industry. A few days later, Allen announced that Crux would survive, now backed by the Catholic fraternal order the Knights of Columbus. Its future will be not as a commercial but a philanthropic venture, which means religious journalists will now be passing the collection plate alongside the the articles they write.


Nicole Winfield, the ever so industrious, ever so hapless, Associated Press reporter for the Vatican, demonstrates why Crux was a welcome venture. Writing March 10 on the AP wire, Winfield described the saint-making process in Rome. “Martyrs, or people who were killed for their faith, get a free pass and can be beatified without a miracle. A miracle is needed, however, for martyrs to be canonized.” Yes, those wily martyrs, taking the free pass of being killed in hatred of the faith!


Father Robert Palladino died on February 26, 2016. He was a Trappist monk who left the religious life in protest against the liberalizing trends of the late 1960s. Along the way, he had mastered the traditional craft of calligraphy. He returned to the priesthood in the 1990s, ensuring that the parents of newly baptized babies received certificates drawn up in immaculate script. When he left the monastery in 1969, Palladino needed to earn a living and so taught calligraphy at Reed College in Portland, Ore., where, in the early ’70s, a young Steve Jobs audited his class. Jobs learned the elegance of style that would shape Apple’s design. An old monk taught the tech pioneer something about beauty. Did Father Palladino enjoy using the Apple fonts he influenced? Not at all. He never owned or even used a computer. “‘I have my hand,’ he would say. ‘and I have my pen. That’s it.’”


Spring is commencement season, so why not another commencement address? Here is a quote from Steve Jobs’ 2005 speech at Stanford, in which he spoke about Palladino’s class: “I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”


Quite a happenstance, that Palladino-Jobs encounter. Or Providence? One is hesitant to attribute God’s designs to a company whose logo is the Biblical symbol for man’s fall into sin, but perhaps there is something there. Jobs speaks of Palladino teaching him about a beauty that was “subtle in a way that science can’t capture.” For all those engineers and science students who go through college without exposure to the liberal arts, that’s good advice. Search for the beauty that science can’t capture.


News is never just news; never just straight up, hard news. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met the premiers to establish a national carbon tax scheme, they agreed to agree but disagreed on what they agreed to. How to report that? Emphasize the agreement? That was the headline in the Toronto Star: “Consensus reached on need for carbon pricing,” with the subhead “But still need to work out the details of carefully worded accord.” The Globe and Mail opted for the reverse, with the headline on the same day reporting, “Premiers balk at PM’s carbon-pricing plan,” and the subhead stating, “Agreement reached on need for additional action to address global commitment on emissions” What’s a reader to do? Get the National Post, of course.


The news from the news business is not all gloomy. That most venerable newspaper, as it insists on calling itself, The Economist, has launched a new sister publication, a “magazine of ideas, lifestyle and culture.” The new mag is called 1843, after the year The Economist was founded. It has a dozen pages of elegantly photographed fashion models before the table of contents. The cover story caught my eye: “The fine art of millinery.” It was one page long. About the magnificence of hats, it seemed noncommittal: “Impractical? Certainly. Witty? Sometimes. Beautiful? Often.” Herewith a word from the bald: Necessary? Absolutely. I am readying myself for the change from the dark winter fedora to the white summer Panama. Not everyone can be a man for all seasons, but he ought to have a hat for every one.

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Father Raymond J. de Souza's continuing survey of religion, culture and public life.

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