I’ve been listening to the Irish radio series (available in podcast) called “Speaking Ill of the Dead.” Based on an idea cooked up by some Montana historians, it’s a series of history lectures that seeks to balance the profession’s innate tendency toward hero worship by deliberately running down some eminent historical figures.
Montana has no end of colorful ne’er-do-wells whose lives can hardly be treated in any other way but with contempt. Some of the Irish historians tried a different tack, showing a dark side of some otherwise revered Irish dead.1 Possibly the most daring effort was David Norris’s portrait of Nobel Peace Prize winner Seán MacBride: Norris painted him as a cruel, pretentious dandy whose zeal for human rights was marred by a youthful zest for reckless violence and, later in life, an influential antipathy toward homosexuals.
I say all this just to lead up to an anecdote about Henry Kissinger. Norris was telling a story about how MacBride, who was educated in France, used to affect a French accent while practicing law in Dublin. That reminded Norris of something:
“I heard a parallel story from an acquaintance who happened to know Henry Kissinger’s brother and asked him why he, the brother, had no trace of a German accent whereas Henry sounded like he’d just bounced in from Munich.
“The brother replied that ‘unlike Henry, I listen to other people.’”
OK, the story is not well sourced, but who can resist repeating it anyway? As my grandmother used to say, “I got tickled” when I heard it. So did Norris’s audience.2
Now that I’ve given away the best joke in the series, if you still want to hear “Speaking Ill of the Dead,” here’s an iTunes link. (There’s also a non-iTunes link, but I don’t recommend it. I had poor results from it.)
1 They didn’t all do this; some of the lectures are about universally despised corpses like Edward Carson, who did so much to keep Ireland divided, and Arthur Balfour, who did much to screw up both Ireland and Palestine. At least one reviewer thought the series (and spin-off book) would have been less bloody boring if more presenters had taken on national heroes, like Norris did. Still, I found it worth a listen. ↩
2 Kissinger and MacBride have two things in common: funny accents and Nobel Peace Prizes. Kissinger is also a prime candidate for “speaking ill,” especially as he has plenty of groupies as well as passionate detractors. The first rule of “Speaking Ill of the Dead,” though, is that the subject cannot be living. ↩