Celebrating life and death of a US patriot
IT IS not generally acknowledged – even by themselves – that Americans do formality very well. Formality, gravitas, solemnity – the Americans bring great confidence to the occasions that demand these qualities, and the celebration of the life of ambassador J Christopher Stevens, which took place in San Francisco last Tuesday, was such an occasion.
Stevens was a California boy – he looked like one – and his family emphasised that he regarded the state as his home. He was born in Grass Valley. He grew up in Marin County – which is just over the Golden Gate bridge. He went to high school in Piedmont, in Oakland in the East Bay. He went to university there, at Berkeley. He played tennis on Russian Hill. And he went to Hastings law school, part of the University of San Francisco, and, as his old classmate there, Mary Neumayr, recalled in her speech: “Just two blocks from here.”
Hundreds of people had gathered in the Rotunda of San Francisco City Hall on Tuesday afternoon. Two great urns held flowers of red, white and blue: white hydrangeas at the bottom, red roses in the middle and what may have been some type of sage at the top. There was a small chamber sextet; the ambassador’s mother was a cellist with the Marin symphony orchestra. There was the University of California Men’s Glee Club Alumni Choir, all of whom were a lot older than the ambassador, who died at 52 when the American consulate in Benghazi in Libya was set on fire on September 11th.
The choir sang “Shall We Gather at the River” and “Songs of California”, and, at the end, two verses of “America the Beautiful”.
The deaths of Chris Stevens and three other Americans in the same incident have been the subject of an ugly controversy in the presidential campaign.
Both his father and his mother, who are divorced, have objected to this. His father, Jan Stevens, a retired California assistant attorney general, called it “abhorrent”. The ambassador’s mother, Mary Commaday, told NBC television: “These were circumstances beyond our government’s control . . . I am perfectly aware that there was danger. But he was a grown man, well-educated and careful. I knew he was out there doing good work.”
To put it another way, Stevens came from the backbone of America – which is cool, not given to extravagance and not easily intimidated by drama.
At the end of the celebration of their brother’s life, his sisters, both medical doctors, were calm and smiling, in the embraces of their friends.
President Obama must be thanking his lucky stars that the family – including their remaining brother Tom, who is now an assistant US attorney in San Francisco, and on Tuesday recalled how Chris could talk his siblings into anything, including streaking naked at the age of five – is so impressive.
They has remained calm not only during the loss of their oldest son – Mary Commaday and her husband were on holiday in Yosemite National Park when the news came through – but through the video posted on YouTube of the unconscious and smoke-blackened ambassador being pulled from the Benghazi consulate, and carried on the shoulder of a bystander to a private car. There was no ambulance, witnesses said, and he was found alone, in a locked room.