Ten years after Diana’s death, the lessons are still unfolding


EDITOR’S NOTE: The St. Louis Jewish Light is now in its 60th year of continuous publication and service to the Jewish community of St. Louis. This article is the second in a series of retrospective features written by Editor-In-Chief Emeritus Robert A. Cohn, who takes a look back at some of the important issues and events that the St. Louis Jewish Light has covered.

Every person will have 15 minutes of fame, according to the famous observation by pop artist Andy Warhol.

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In these days of instant and fleeting celebrity, it seems that Warhol’s comment is no longer a flip figure of speech, but a literal description of what passes for “news” in much of our 24/7 cable TV news cycle.

The tragic death of Diana, the Princess of Wales in a car accident with her companion Dodi Fayed on Aug. 31, 1997 to those of us who can recall it as vividly as the assassination of JFK or even the tragedy of Sept. 11, it feels like the Golden Princess was taken from us only 15 minutes ago, but it has been 10 years.

A decade later, the memory of the glowing, troubled, fragile yet strong Princess Diana maintains its hold on our imagination.

The anniversary of the death of Princess Diana coincides with the end of the remarkable tenure of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had only recently moved into Number 10 Downing Street as the brash young Laborite head of the government of the United Kingdom at the time of Princess Diana’s death.

The coincidence of the start of Blair’s prime ministry and the sudden and tragic death of the beloved Princess provided Blair with his first opportunity to display real leadership, political savvy and even statesmanship as he brought the British Royal Family back from the brink of totally bungling their official response to the shattering loss.

The story of how Blair saved Queen Elizabeth II and the entire British Royal Family from permanent ridicule and possible banishment was brought to movie screens last year in the film The Queen, in which Helen Mirren earned a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe Award for her powerful and belivable portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II. James Cromwell in the same movie plays an uncannily accurate Tony Blair.

The film, directed by David Frears, who was not a supporter of the British monarchy going in to the project, brilliantly blends archival news footage of the actual events up to and following the death of Princess Diana, the initial failure of the Queen and her fellow Royals to properly honor the memory of the princess whom they shunned after her divorce from Prince Charles, and how Prime Minister Blair skillfully came to the rescue of the monarchy, an institution about which he had no enthusiasm and which his feisty wife loathed.

Now, ten years after Diana’s death, Blair has been succeeded by his longtime fellow Laborite and rival, Michael Brown, whose leadership has already been tested by the suicide bombing attacks at the airports in London and Glasgow.

Blair himself never left center stage of world politics, almost immediately accepting the “retirement” job of becoming the special roving Middle East peace envoy for the so-called Quartet of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, seeking to revive the moribund Mideast peace process. Meanwhile, even as Great Britain and millions of adoring admirers mark the tenth yahrzeit of Princess Diana, and historians begin to reflect upon the legacy of Blair’s decade as leader of the British government, Queen Elizabeth II remains firmly on the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Indeed, ten years on, as our British friends would say, it is remarkable that Queen Elizabeth II could be at the peak of her popularity, while Blair’s original image as the young, hip leader who “got” the fact that Diana deserved to be called “The People’s Princess” ended his career as British Prime Minister with more than a few clouds over his head. Like his predecessors, Winston Churchill, who partnered with Franklin D. Roosevelt to lead the Free World against the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and militaristic Japan in World War II, and Margaret Thatcher, who supported her fellow conservative Ronald Reagan in the effort to win the Cold War, Blair was a consistent supporter of the “Special Relationship” that has existed between Great Britain and its former American colonies since at least World War I.

Blair had supported a strong British-U.S. relationship with former President Bill Clinton, for whom he felt a political kinship as a fellow “centrist” liberal, and later with President George W. Bush, especially after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

Even Margaret Thatcher, who had supported few of Blair’s ideas at the outset of his term, praised what she called his “unswerving” support of the government and people of the United States following Sept. 11. Blair was similarly supportive of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, and he maintained that strong support at the cost of losing considerable support among his fellow Laborites, British media and much of the public who began to mock him as “Bush’s Poodle.”

Blair’s new role as special Middle East peace envoy provides him with another opportunity to let his true political and diplomatic skills to shine through once again, although he faces an uphill struggle.

The Bush Administration, which initially recruited Blair for the envoy role, has made it clear that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the White House’s choice to play the major role in the upcoming peace talks among Israel, the Palestinians and the moderate members of the League of Arab States: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

Blair also is regarded with coolness by the increasingly autocratic and uncooperative Russian President Vladimir Putin, and faces more competition from the United Nations and European Union negotiators.

What are we to learn from the perspective of ten years about the signficance of the life and death of Princess Diana?

What does that tragedy have to teach us about today’s news coverage, celebrity worship and the shark-like paparazzi? How is it that such a promising and dashing young British Prime Minister who began his terms with such lofty ideals and hopes could have been brought so low at the end of his term. And how is that the once and present Queen Elizabeth II, whose crown sat so “uneasily on her head” a decade ago, was received so warmly during her recent visit to Jamestown, Virginia and Washington, and who now has the same kind of affection from her subjects that the Queen Mum, her late mother, used to enjoy?

The David Frears film The Queen evokes the depth of the grief felt by the Brtitish people and people all over the world when Diana was taken from us ten years ago. For Diana’s funeral, Elton John reworked his tribute to Marilyn Monroe, originally called Goodbye, Norma Jean, into Goodbye, England’s Rose, calling Diana a “candle in the wind.”

Indeed, as Adlai Stevenson would say of Eleanor Roosevelt at her funeral, “she would rather light a candle than curse the darkness.”

Princess Diana taught us how one can use God-given gifts of beauty, power and charisma to perform acts of charity, chesed, loving kindness, and help achieve the Jewish value of tikkun olam, to heal and repair the world.

Tony Blair leaves office bruised and battered, but still young and vigororous, and still having the opportunity to perform good works with his immense skills.

Queen Elizabeth II, who reminded Tony Blair that her first Prime Minister was Sir Winston Churchill, who wore top hat and tails when he presented his credentials to the crown, sits more easily on the 1,000-year old British throne than she did during the “horrible years” of scandals and burned down castles. Blair and Elizabeth II continue to walk the stage of the world. Diana, the “Candle in the Wind” is no longer with us, but the glow of her legacies of kindness and grace under fire live on.

This, the tenth yahrzeit of the People’s Princess is an appropriate time to again appreciate Diana, and keep her memory for a blessing.

How did the ‘St. Louis Jewish Light’ respond to Princess Diana’s death?

In the St. Louis Jewish Light’s edition of Sept. 3, 1997, a lenthy, bylined commentary from the desk of the then-editor and publisher Robert A. Cohn appeared under the headline, “Princess Diana: The Fairest of Them All.”

Here are some excerpts from that piece, which elicited several hundred immediate responses from readers, nearly all of them favorable:

“In fairy tales, Princesses never die. Sleeping Beauty awoke from her 100-year slumber when kissed by her Prince. And when Snow White was struck down by a poisoned apple, her long lost Prince Charming opened her glass casket and, with a loving kiss, restored her to life. And then they lived happily ever after.

“In the real life story of Princess Diana there is no happy ending. It was not a poisoned apple or a Wicked Witch’s spell, but the pursuit of greedy paparazzi trying to steal another moment of her privacy that drove Princess Diana to her death. And when her life was over, the not always charming Prince Charles flew to Paris not to bring her back to life with a loving kiss, but to escort her flag-draped casket back to their grief-stricken realm. Foggy London will never again have its gray mists lifted by Princess Diana’s radiant smile or by her many acts of kindness. She was indeed the Fairest of Them All in good deeds as well as in beauty.

“Some people really do seem almost too good to be true. Princess Grace of Monaco, who also died in an automobile accident was such a person. Like Princess Diana, Princess Grace possessed uncommon beauty and charisma, but in the words of Kipling couild walk with Kings and never lose the common touch. John F. Kennedy, the young President whose era was called Camelot, was another such person who shared his gifts with his people to encourage sacrifices for good causes before he too had his life cruelly cut short….

“….And now the fairy tale must end. There will be no Prince Charming to kiss the dead Princess back to life. Instead Prince Charles must bury the Princess who was the loving mother of his children. Sadly, the Wicked Witches of illness, violence and poverty against which she fought live on. Her blessed memory will remind us of the duty to carry on her work.

“The British will no longer be able to claim that theirs is the land of the stiff upper lip. They must allow themselves to let go and cry and rend their garments. Their Golden Princess is dead. And they must live unhappily ever after.”

— Excerpted from the original article which appeared in the Sept. 3, 1997 edition of the St. Louis Jewish Light.