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Death, demagoguery

Books | Death as punishment, relief; demagogues past, present

Issue: "Question of Faith," April 5, 1997

It is said Bill Clinton's final political quest is his place in history. Certainly Mount Rushmore is safe, but to whom does Mr. Clinton compare? It's hard to name anyone who comes close. Historians may mention him in the same breath as Warren Harding and Ulysses S. Grant, whose administrations were noted for their corruption.

Another possibility is Louisiana's Huey P. Long. Although Mr. Clinton is not a crass demagogue like Mr. Long, the latter had nine political lives and seemed to overcome every political adversity. Historian William Hair captures Mr. Long's simultaneously fascinating and frightening political career in The Kingfish and His Realm.

Death comes in many ways--assassination in the case of Huey Long. The state also bears the sword, and the death penalty is one of the more contentious issues that we face. Should we give today's corrupted government the power to kill? Philosophy professor Hugo Adam Bedau has collected a score of essays and court opinions in The Death Penalty in America. Mr. Bedau weights the volume against the death penalty (he personally accounts for several of the critical pieces), but he includes Ernest van den Haag, one of the most vocal proponents of capital punishment, as well as a chapter by H. Wayne House on the New Testament and moral arguments for the death penalty.

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Death also comes by choice, and we risk slipping into what Pope John Paul II has called "the culture of death." SMU Press has published a volume on euthanasia, half of which is devoted to theological attitudes toward "assisted suicide." Must We Suffer Our Way to Death? includes essays both pro and con; the volume's discussion is generally both thoughtful and cautionary. In the end, it's hard not to agree with Allen Verhey, a religion professor at Hope College, that "the person who is contemplating suicide needs grace, not options."

Age brings economic as well as health problems, something dealt with in The Economic Effects of Aging. This volume, admittedly a tough read for the layman, deals primarily with problems of pensions and savings. The information transmitted is valuable, if the writing style is not always the most inviting. Responsible reform of Social Security, which will otherwise head over the fiscal cliff in just a decade or so, requires that officials both understand the basic economic issues and exercise political courage, something in short supply in Washington.

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