If you want to learn how to write obituaries about controversial figures, all you need to do is pay close attention to articles about leaders on the cultural and moral right. They are sure to include a 50-50 mix (or close to it) of warm quotes from the person's supporters and stinging attacks from critics.
This is not the approach that one sees when a controversial figure dies on the cultural left. If Gloria Steinem died today, one would see obituaries packed with tributes, stacked up against one or two (at most) quotes from her many critics. Most of all, the story would emphasize -- as it should -- her many victories in life, the times when she spoke out and was proven right.
We can leave all of that to another day, since, in this case, we are talking about the death of Phyllis Schlafly. That means we are looking at classic, 50-50 journalism about a figure who was truly and utterly loathed by the left and, thus, by most journalists and pundits. By the way, it's wise to avoid glancing at Twitter, where we can find a wide and deep river of acidic speculations on the left about how Schlafly will fare in the afterlife.
But consider the top of The Washington Post obituary, which includes a highly ironic summary paragraph:
Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist, lawyer and author who is credited with almost single-handedly stopping the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and who helped move the Republican Party toward the right on family and religious issues, died Monday at her home in St. Louis. She was 92.
Her daughter, Anne Cori, said Mrs. Schlafly had been ill with cancer for some time.
A champion of traditional, stay-at-home roles for women, Mrs. Schlafly opposed the ERA because she believed it would open the door to same-sex marriage, abortion, the military draft for women, co-ed bathrooms and the end of labor laws that barred women from dangerous workplaces.
The Post team offered that list without comment. It would have been easy to find scholars and pundits willing to note that most of Schlafly's wild predictions don't sound quite as crazy these days. In other words, she won her battle against the ERA, but lost the much larger war with Hollywood, trends in public education and the all-powerful worldview of shopping malls from coast to coast.
Of course, Schlafly's other major accomplishment in life was helping create a large space for religious and cultural conservatives inside the big tent of the modern Republican Party. In many ways, she was -- as a wealthy Catholic woman who was Phi Beta Kappa in college and later earned a law degree -- a unique rebel against the GOP Country Club establishment that found many of her causes embarrassing (and still does).
This is one place where I thought the mainstream obits missed an opportunity to probe a bit deeper. No one is surprised that the left hated this woman. As the Post team noted:
Well-spoken, self-assured, dressed like an affluent homemaker, "with a hairdo like a treble clef," as Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times said in 2006, Mrs. Schlafly drove feminists nuts.
Ah, but what did elite Republican leaders actually think of her?
After all, we are talking about one of the most important figures in the rise of the Religious Right, which remains the segment of the GOP base that gets the least respect (rather like labor unions in the modern Democratic Party). I thought this passage was quite effective:
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision on Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion. Suddenly, a huge constituency of conservative, family-oriented churchgoers was energized to engage in politics.
Binding together fundamentalists, evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons and Orthodox Jews, Mrs. Schlafly realized that she could direct a movement of people who believed the family and traditional values were under attack. A best-selling author, radio commentator and an excellent debater, she barnstormed the country, speaking before clubs, church organizations and 30 state legislatures.
You can, of course, see the same 50-50 editorial mix in the massive, magisterial Schlafly obituary from The New York Times -- with its heavy emphasis on the voices of the feminist establishment.
The tone is set right up top, right after the somewhat restrained lede:
In her time, Mrs. Schlafly was one of the most polarizing figures in American public life, a self-described housewife who displayed a moral ferocity reminiscent of the ax-wielding prohibitionist Carry Nation. Richard Viguerie, who masterminded the use of direct mail to finance right-wing causes, called her “the first lady of the conservative movement.”
On the left, Betty Friedan, the feminist leader and author, compared her to a religious heretic, telling her in a debate that she should burn at the stake for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. Ms. Friedan called Mrs. Schlafly an “Aunt Tom.”
This passage says it all:
Even liberals conceded her impact. “If political influence consists in transforming this huge and cantankerous country in one’s preferred direction,” the political scientist Alan Wolfe wrote in The New Republic in 2005, “Schlafly has to be regarded as one of the two or three most important Americans of the last half of the 20th century” -- although he hastened to add that “every idea she ever had was scatterbrained, dangerous and hateful.”
For all her political heft, it was Phyllis Schlafly the person who often animated discussion. With her pearls, perfect posture and Daughters of the American Revolution pedigree, she basked in depictions of herself as the perfect wife and mother. She let it drop that she breast-fed all six of her babies and that she had taught all her children to read before they started school.
The Times piece is long, long, long, which surely speaks to the giant-sized role that Schlafly played in the liberal imagination. It's appropriate, I think, that her enemies are quoted at length. The journalistic question is whether many journalists would take the same approach when covering the wins and losses of those on the other side.
And there is one more question: What are we to make of the fact that Schafly won so many political battles, but ultimately that didn't matter? After all, politics is downstream from culture (and now Donald Trump is the GOP nominee, endorsed by Schlafly).
Thus, I appreciated the gravity of this final quote in the Times obit:
In her 2006 interview with The Times, she attributed the improvement in women’s lives in the 20th century not to feminism but to labor-saving devices like the indoor clothes dryer and paper diapers.
“Feminism has changed the way women think, and it has changed the way men think,” she said, “but the trouble is, it hasn’t changed the attitudes of babies at all.”