We have come to expect many things from public figures in Western democracies. We make many demands of them, perhaps more than any previous civilization has ever done. We want our politicians to tell self-deprecating jokes as well as deliver inspiring speeches. We want our Presidents to show emotion in the face of tragedy as well as bravery in the face of danger. We want our political celebrities, like our entertainment celebrities, to reveal details of their lives so intimate that we would not demand as much of our closest friends. We follow their activities on television and via the Internet 24 hours a day. We know when their marriages are failing, when their children are in trouble and when they have financial difficulties. And if they happen to die, suddenly or tragically, we react with the kinds of emotions that we would normally reserve for people we know extremely well. Because we do know them extremely well, or at least feel as if we do.
Twice in my life, I have found myself close to the tragic death of a public figure, once as a journalist and once as a politician’s wife. The first tragedy was the car crash that killed the Princess of Wales in Paris in 1997. Although I did not know her, at the time of her death I was a political columnist for the London Evening Standard, an afternoon tabloid whose editors had a lively interest in royal affairs, and who duly threw themselves into coverage of the mass mourning in London.
The second tragedy, more recent and more serious, was the death of the President of Poland and several dozen other Polish politicians this past April in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia. This time I did know many of the 94 victims. Some were friends, and almost all were colleagues and acquaintances of my husband, who is the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs.
At the most obvious level, these two events are not remotely alike. At the time of her death, Princess Diana held no official status in Britain. She was divorced from Prince Charles and had been deprived of her royal title. She was better known for her clothes than for her political views, and she did not die while undertaking any form of public service. She was in Paris with her new boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, the son of the owner of Harrods, and was speeding away from paparazzi when her car crashed.
By contrast, President Lech Kaczynski was the head of the Polish state, a politician who had played a large role in both domestic and European politics. He was flying to Russia to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Stalin’s murder of 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, and to kick off his re-election campaign. His pilot was attempting to land in heavy fog at the primitive Smolensk airport when his plane crashed.
As I say, these events are not alike. Yet there were aspects of the media coverage, the public mourning and the political fallout that seemed, from my ringside view of both tragedies, eerily similar.
Certainly the national reactions in Britain and Poland followed a similar pattern. First there was the shock, caused not least by the fact that the deaths brought a surprise ending to ongoing, real-life dramas. We had been following Diana’s romantic adventures and the Polish President’s political adventures, reading about them daily and watching others talking about them on television. Then, just like that, those adventures were over. People were genuinely sad, and people sincerely wept—because Diana was a young mother, because Lech Kaczynski was a man in his prime, and above all, perhaps, because spectacular deaths remind us that a less telegenic variety can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Seeing national waves of sadness wash over the general public—and feeling it themselves—journalists in both cases began to write about it. Slowly at first, and then more enthusiastically, they encouraged and dramatized the nation’s sorrow until what had been genuine grief shaded into kitsch. Thousands of mourners who wanted to be part of the “Diana experience” traveled to London bearing teddy bears, cards and flowers, which they left outside the gates of the princess’s former residence at Kensington Palace. Poles who wanted to express their sympathy clustered in central Warsaw, lighting candles in front of the ministries and buildings where the crash victims had worked. Some flew the national flag from their car windows, or wore black armbands and black ribbons in their hair.
The newspapers egged them on, encouraging everyone to participate, and the crowds egged on the newspapers in return. During the week after Diana died, a colleague of mine at the Evening Standard told me that she had caught herself shouting at her writers, as if she were a tabloid editor in a movie: “Gush! Gush! More emotion! More feeling!” Her motives were mixed. On the one hand, she wanted the articles to reflect the mood of the mob outside Kensington Palace. At the same time, she was afraid of this mob. Nobody wanted to get it wrong, nobody wanted the mob to turn against the journalists, the editors or the press.
For the mob did turn, as every sentient observer could see it was going to do. In the week after Diana’s funeral, the crowd standing outside of Buckingham Palace booed the Queen of England, whose stiff, formal reaction to the tragedy was deemed insufficiently emotional. Never mind that the Queen’s stiffness reflected what she felt was the dignity and privacy of mourning, or that she had simply never been taught to “gush”: For what must have been a terrifying few days for the royal family, it even seemed as if her failure to weep in public threw the very legitimacy of Britain’s constitutional monarchy into question.
In the week that followed the crash of the Polish President’s plane, a very similar process took place. Journalists who had criticized the President the week before the crash assumed long faces and donned black ties. The rule that one must not speak ill of the dead became a form of political correctness. Elegant black-and-white photos, showing the first couple as they had rarely looked in real life, appeared on all of the front pages. It was impossible, for many days, to ask basic questions about the crash: Why had the pilots decided to land an old plane at a fogged-in, outdated airstrip? Why had the President asked all of the army’s leading generals to accompany him on that fatal flight?
But the mob in Poland turned, too—although, because the President was a partisan figure and not a fairytale princess, the anger flowed in two directions. Some were furious at the late President and his entourage. Others were furious at the late President’s critics. Around me the former were more numerous. As one funeral ceremony followed the next, I encountered more and more angry people, to the point where it became almost unbearable. But I knew some of the President’s admirers as well, and they too were spitting with anger. They were furious at the media for “concealing” those lovely photographs before his death, and they were furious at everyone who had not understood him while he was alive and who were not doing enough to honor him in his death.
In both Britain and Poland, this wave of anger was accompanied by the desire to make sense of the deaths, to exalt them, to write them into the national narrative. Diana, in death, was transformed from a troubled, divorced and not particularly accomplished celebrity into a symbol of modern Britain. She was said to be emblematic of a new generation that had left the stiff upper lip behind, and her car crash was said to be a symbolic execution: The Princess was “murdered” by the paparazzi who were chasing her—and never mind that she had courted and encouraged them while she was alive.
Priests, politicians and newspaper columnists sought to find hope, meaning and a larger significance to President Kaczynski’s doomed flight, too. As in Britain, nobody wanted the crash to be a mere accident, a piece of unusual bad luck. Instead it was variously said to have “healed Poland’s relationship with Russia”, or to have “brought Poles together, as a nation”—or else to prove how death and disaster were inextricably linked to the national character.
In the United Kingdom, all of these justifications and all of these attempts to make sense of the senseless eventually came to nothing: More than a decade after her death, the royal family is little changed, the paparazzi are as vicious as ever, Diana’s memorial site at her family home is rarely visited. On the tenth anniversary of her funeral, the British press openly wondered what the fuss had all been about.
I cannot predict the precise course of Polish politics, but I would guess that a decade from now, the President’s death will not have brought about much change, either. It certainly will not be remembered for having brought Poles together as a nation.
Still, the week of mourning, the public Mass and the state funeral at the royal cathedral in Krakow will be remembered, described and discussed for many years, just as Diana’s funeral is still brought up from time to time in Britain. Both felt strange and archaic while they were happening, and will seem more so with the passage of time.
If nothing else, they prove that beneath the surface of our democratic, bureaucratic and avowedly secular societies, there remains a longing for mystery and ritual, occasions when the nation experiences a collective set of emotions. Although we want our Prime Ministers and Presidents and modern Princesses to be human, ordinary and humble, “just like us”, we also want to feel that their untimely deaths, however accidental or unnecessary, have some greater meaning—even if we have to invent that meaning from scratch.