Epitaphs, as Dr. Johnson observed, are not given under oath.
Even now, we don't demand that a eulogy's lapidary phrases conform to the rules of evidence. At the same time, the appropriation of funereal remarks to some private purpose long has been regarded as dubious, not to mention coarse. Mark Antony's famous oration over the murdered Caesar's body, for example -- the real one and not the incomparable soliloquy imagined by Shakespeare -- still is regarded with a kind of revulsion for its self-interested incitement to civic discord.
That brings us to another Anthony -- Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- and the casually malicious use he made of his trip to the microphone at Friday's funeral for slain Los Angeles Police Officer Randal Simmons, who lost his life attempting to rescue hostages he believed were being held by a deranged young gunman.
Now, few politicians can be fully trusted near a microphone, particularly before a large audience on an occasion as emotionally charged as Friday's, but nobody could have predicted the reckless digression in Villaraigosa's eulogy of Simmons. First, he informed the audience that "the newspapers" only "tell the truth" about LAPD officers in obituaries. Then the mayor went on to say, "We know that the central story of this department has never been written in consent decrees or the reports of inspectors general."
If newspapers, including this one, only tell the truth about dead police officers, we are left to assume that they lie about the living ones. Does the mayor have an example in mind? Does he really believe that The Times' stories on the Rampart scandal, which helped lay the groundwork for the reforms now being undertaken under the federal consent decree, were lies? If so, let him say so directly and give examples.
Given the vast effort and expense that's gone into implementing the consent degree between the LAPD and the U.S. Department of Justice, and into making the civilian Police Commission's inspector general an effective advocate of the public's interest in policing, why the sudden desire on Villaraigosa's part to undercut both? Although there's been some entirely predictable resistance to the decree inside the LAPD, the truth is that the department's record of reform under Chief William J. Bratton -- like its generally good community relations and its constructive engagement with the Police Commission -- has been historically remarkable.
If the mayor actually is interested in the LAPD's "central story," if he really wants to discuss its real history, the fact of the matter is that it's been like one of those old good-cop/bad-cop routines. On the one hand, there are the Randal Simmonses and the overwhelming majority of good police officers who go about day after day performing dangerous and unforgiving work in a quietly decent, and sometimes heroic, fashion. On the other hand, there are the corrupt, brutal and racist cops -- a small group, to be sure -- whose regular disgrace of their badge was unfortunately tolerated by the honest majority and overlooked by a cynical command staff and a city government that didn't really care about the quality of policing as long as it was cheap and had quick response times.
As a longtime civil libertarian and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which helped lay the legal groundwork for the consent decree, Villaraigosa knows all this. So, what's behind his reckless comments?
Maybe he just has lousy speechwriters? Unlikely. Pandering is the more likely explanation. The mayor has been taking a battering from the Police Protective League over new financial disclosure regulations required by the consent decree. Maybe he thought that denigrating the agreement in front of all those blue shirts would win over some of his critics.
Lots of luck on that one.
Perhaps the mayor simply hoped to demonstrate that he really is a "friend to the department." After all, the ongoing reduction in crime in L.A. is one of the few unambiguous achievements of a mayoral administration that seems to generate more unfinished initiatives than an ADD clinic.
That's Bratton's doing, of course, and one of the things Villaraigosa doesn't want anyone to remember is that he didn't bring the chief here. His predecessor, James Hahn, did -- and took a political hit for doing it that probably cost him his job.
If Bratton leaves to take a job in a Clinton or an Obama administration, as many believe is possible, it would be convenient for Villaraigosa to campaign on the departed chief's accomplishments.
Whatever his motives, the mayor's remarks at Randal Simmons' funeral mark a rhetorical low point in an administration that seems increasingly adrift.