The Latin phrase de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est is usually shortened to de mortuis nil nisi bonum or sometimes just nil nisi bonum. It is variously translated as “No one can speak ill of the dead,” “Of the dead, speak no evil,” or, more literally, “Let nothing be said of the dead but what is good.”

This expression is used in modern parlance with two nearly contradictory significances. In legal contexts, it refers to the common law principle that defaming a deceased person is not actionable. In colloquial contexts, it indicates that it is socially inappropriate to say anything negative about a (recently) deceased person.

The first recorded use of the phrase is by Diogenes Laërtius in Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, where he attributes it to Chilon of Sparta. Since both men were Greek, the original aphorism was rendered as τον τεθνηκοτα μη κακολογειν(“Don’t badmouth a dead man”). In 1432 Italian theologian Ambrogio Traversari translated Diogenes’ work into Latin, popularizing the phrase in that language.[1]  –  WIKIPEDIA


Mark Steyn’s recounting of the only time he was in the presence of the late Senator Edward Moore Kennedy, appended below, brought to my mind the only time that I personally encountered the Senator.  It was not a pleasant experience; even so, I was thankful that it occurred on dry land and not on a boat as was the case with Mark Steyn.  The social caveat which appears in Latin above does not apply to politicians.  Since they enjoy a privileged status in Congress which enables them to say almost anything about anybody with impunity granted to them by law, as long as they say it on the floor of either the House or the Senate, it seems to me that they are not eligible to be covered by the rule cited above.

In 19971-72 I was serving as the Pastor of Saint Patrick Church on Miami Beach.  One of the burdens of being the Pastor of that Church was that one frequently had to attend banquets at the major hotels on Miami Beach and give the invocation at the beginning of the banquet.  It was customary for the clergyman giving the invocation to be seated at the head table and to remain for the speeches which would be delivered as part of the evening’s program.  I have forgotten the occasion of the banquet at the Fontainbleau Hotel to which I was asked to give the invocation.  I do remember that the principle speaker was Edward (Ted) Kennedy.  As frequently happened, I was seated at the head table, next to Kennedy.  After I gave my invocation and after the preliminary remarks by the master of ceremonies, the meal began and I attempted to engage Kennedy in conversation.  For the first and only time in my life, and I have given invocations at innumerable banquets, the principle speaker, Kennedy, would not speak with me.  When I say that he would not speak with me, I am saying that he never addressed one word to me during the course of the meal.  When I said something to him in an effort to make conversation he simply looked at me without speaking.  That was a meal I will never forget.


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Ave atque vale

by Mark Steyn

Wednesday, 07 October 2009
from National Review

I was overseas when Senator Edward Kennedy died, and a European reporter asked me what my “most vivid memory” of the great man was. I didn’t like to say, because it didn’t seem quite the appropriate occasion. But my only close encounter with the Lion of the Senate was many years ago at Logan Airport late one night. A handful of us, tired and bedraggled, were standing on the water shuttle waiting to be ferried across the harbor to downtown Boston. A sixth gentleman hopped aboard, wearing the dark-suited garb of the advance man, and had a word in a crew-member’s ear, and so we waited, and waited, in the chilly Atlantic air, wondering which eminence was the cause of our delay. And suddenly there he was on the quay, looming out of the fog. He stepped aboard. The small launch lurched and rocked, waves splashed the deck, luggage danced in the air, and the five of us all grabbed for whatever rail was to hand as the realization dawned that we’d been signed up for a watery excursion with Senator Kennedy.

This was Ted at his most ravaged, big and bloated, before his new wife (also in attendance) had had a chance to get his excesses under control. One of the recurring refrains of the weeks of eulogies was his apparently amazing affinity for “ordinary people”, as if this is now some kind of personal achievement for a United States senator, who after all can’t be expected to have the same careless ease with the common run of humanity as, say, one of the more inbred late Ottoman sultans. But Ted, we were assured, was great with “ordinary people”. Not that night, he wasn’t. He stood in the center and glanced at us, awkwardly, in the way of celebrities who find themselves outside their comfort zone, and aren’t sure the “ordinary people” know quite what the rules are. I assumed he’d offer a casual, “Hey, sorry for keeping you waiting”, and then the roar of the motor would have prevented further conversation. But he said nothing, which, given that the other passengers were his constituents, struck me as a little odd.

Years later, I saw him again, in action at the Senate. Well, not in “action”. It was the impeachment trial of President Clinton, and for some reason the emirs of Incumbistan had been prevailed upon to come in on a Saturday for the proceedings. Under the convoluted trial procedures, members of the Senate had to submit questions to their respective party leaders, who then passed them to the Chief Justice, who then read them out. So the pages were run off their feet ferrying lethal interjections from lead Democrat saboteurs Tom Harkin and Patrick Leahy up to the Minority Leader Tom Daschle. The page had barely dropped off Senator Harkin’s question when the wheezing, heaving senator from Massachusetts called him over. From up in the gallery, I thought, “Ah-ha!” I was there to cover the trial for various British and Commonwealth newspapers, and, as Ted Kennedy’s the only senator any foreigners have heard of, his contribution to date had been disappointing: He had spluttered to life in the preceding weeks only to cough Mount St Helens-scale eruptions across the chamber. He declined to cover his coughs. Indeed, he gave the vague sense of assuming that’s what the rest of the Democrat caucus was there for. I remember Blanche Lincoln shooting him a disapproving look after one Niagara of saliva came her way.

So, on this Saturday afternoon, his unexpected contribution to the trial would clearly be a major part of my coverage. What devastating interjection, I wondered, would he be springing on the prosecutors? The page padded silently over to the senator’s seat in the back. Ted whispered to him, and the page made his way to the end of the row, then worked his way along the row in front, squeezing past senators until he was directly facing Ted’s desk. He then dropped to his knees – which, as it turned out, was the nearest the Clinton trial would ever get to a re-staging of the acts at issue.  But instead he leaned under the desk and adjusted Ted’s footrest by an inch and a half. The senior senator from Massachusetts seemed satisfied, and the page was squeezing his way back past the other senators when Ted motioned him to return. Ignoring a frantic Pat Leahy waving some critical note for Tom Daschle, the page reversed course, squeezed past Senator Graham of Florida yet again and dropped to his knees to move Ted’s footrest another smidgeonette. He then rushed off to pick up Senator Leahy’s note. Senator Kennedy didn’t thank him.

I have been received at Buckingham Palace, and over the years I’ve also met the Queen of Spain, the Queen of the Netherlands and various other Royal personages. And I can’t imagine any of them demanding of their footmen what Ted Kennedy did. But then they’re only Euro royalty, not Massachusetts royalty. “At the end of the day,” said Evan Bayh of his colleague, “he cared most about the things that matter to ordinary people.” This was, observed many a eulogist, his penance for Chappaquiddick  and Mary Jo Kopechne – or, as the Aussie Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair put it, “She died so that the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act might live.” This, of course, is the classic trade-off of monarchical societies throughout the ages: The sovereign’s industrial-scale exercise of his droit de seigneur with whatever comely serving wench crosses his path is mitigated by his paternalistic compassion toward the humblest of his subjects.

Strange how the monarchical urge persists even in a republic two-and-a-third centuries old.

Time to mothball the Camelot footstools? I hope so.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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