Death Is the Common Denominator

By Frank Rich Copyright New York Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 22, 1994 | Go to article overview

Death Is the Common Denominator


Frank Rich Copyright New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Death is the last taboo in America, a word to be avoided the moment it hits home. But in the public arena, death is inescapable. Arguments about abortion rights, assisted suicides and capital punishment are all arguments about when life begins and ends and who, if anyone, should call the shots. Even the health-care debate is in part a referendum on the myriad routes that can be taken to death and the cost of reaching that final destination.

This is why all the Monday-morning quarterbacking about President Bill Clinton's choice of a new Supreme Court justice may miss the point. The lost runner-up on Clinton's short list of three was not the politically controversial Bruce Babbitt but the medically controversial Richard Arnold, a highly regarded chief judge on the federal Court of Appeals who has been under treatment for lymphoma since 1978.

Arnold, 58, survived as a candidate until nearly the last moment. But the president, who originally found no conflict between the judge's illness and his capacity for work, kept polling doctors for second opinions. Finally, as a White House aide told The New York Times, "it became more and more difficult to project with any sense of confidence that Judge Arnold would be able to serve 15 or 20 years on the bench."

The political reasons that a president wants Supreme Court appointees with longevity are obvious. But higher reasons may exist for choosing a person who has been forced to confront mortality by coping daily for 16 years with a serious illness.

Were Arnold to live only 14 more years - taking him to 72, the average life expectancy of white American men - or even considerably less, his facing down of his own death might make those limited years of service an extraordinary asset to American jurisprudence, not a liability.

His experiences would have an immense practical value - and no doubt a humanizing effect - in deliberations where the very definition of life and death can be up for grabs.

More important than his firsthand knowledge of clinical issues of illness, medicine and dying, however, would be his depth of perspective on life before the grave. …

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