The thin line between viewer, voyeur

  • Rick Horowitz
  • Wednesday, June 9, 2004 9:00pm
  • Opinion

There was a moment’s uncertainty, the widow leaning forward in her tall black chair, talking to her daughter, and across her daughter to her son. For a minute or more they talked, a quizzical look on the widow’s face – a question of protocol, perhaps, or precedent. From time to time she’d nod, a nod of agreement, then more questions, and more reassurance from the children.

Or so it seemed to a viewer thousands of miles from the scene, as the pastor completed his remarks and the cameras shifted their attention to the three mourners deep in conversation. A viewer tried to read body language, tried to read gestures and lips, but was left with only speculation. And then they were standing – the widow, a daughter, a son – and moving together, moving slowly toward the casket.

He had been long gone, yet now he was truly gone. A husband. A father. A president. The official goodbyes had begun, and the cameras were putting us right in the middle of it.

It was altogether appropriate. It was more than a little disconcerting.

Appropriate because he was the major figure of his time. In the time since and in the mind’s eye, he was undiminished. Millions considered him their first president, their only president, and it was right that they, and the rest of the world, be there, too – if only through the camera’s eye – to pay tribute. To join in the grieving.

Disconcerting because the camera brought us so close. Was it right that we could watch the mourners’ huddled conversation? Right that we could try to read their lips?

The widow moved closest to the casket now, her hands moving gently across the flag that so gently, so lovingly, covered it. The son and the daughter stood close by, with their own, unreadable, thoughts. We could speculate, but we could not know.

Then – it lasted no more than a second or two – the widow bent toward the casket, lay her cheek against the flag. Her left cheek, up where the blue field, filled with stars, met the red and white stripes. No more than a second or two, and then the widow stood, and the pastor came close to offer what further solace he could. The widow said a few words to him, shook her head. “I don’t know what I’m to do now,” she might have been saying. Or “I never thought it would be this difficult.”

She might have been saying these words, or others; it was hard to tell. By now a viewer thousands of miles from the scene was watching sideways, eyes partly averted. This was a widow, confiding in a pastor. It was a relief whenever the cameras switched to the more distant overhead shot, preserving – if only barely – the thin line between viewer and voyeur.

The daughter moved closer now, the daughter who had been so long and so famously estranged. She brought her mother near to her, and head next to head, murmured something that produced a tiny nod. The daughter’s face was turned away from the camera as she said what she said, and a viewer thousands of miles from the scene was grateful. A daughter comforting a mother – the rest of us needed to know no more than that.

The two were embracing now, the daughter’s hand stroking the mother’s back, up and down, up and down. Faces pressed close, and again the daughter must have spoken, because again the mother nodded. Once. Twice. The daughter was doing what she could to soften pain, and a viewer watched – but not too closely.

He had been long gone – the husband, the father, the president – yet now he was truly gone. He was the major figure of his time, and the most public of men. But even in this public space, in this public ceremony, his loved ones were entitled to moments of their own, to whispered words in a widow’s ear.

Rick Horowitz is a nationally syndicated columnist. Contact him by writing to rickhoro@execpc.com.

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