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.
According to the doctor who treated him, he died of the effects of smoke inhalation after about 90 minutes of attempted resuscitation. According to the Daily Mail, the American security forces only found the ambassador when that same doctor started phoning the most recently dialled numbers on his mobile phone, by which time his mysterious foreign patient was dead.
Last Friday it emerged that on August 2nd, Stevens, an Middle East expert, had sent a memo to the House oversight and government reform committee requesting more security, saying “the security condition in Libya is unpredictable, volatile and violent”.
After Mary Neumayr had spoken, a small, bald man ascended the staircase of the San Francisco Civic Center. “I am the Libyan ambassador, both before and after the revolution,” he said. This was the Ali Suleiman Aujali, another tennis partner of Chris Stevens’s. “You send us one of your best diplomats and we failed to protect him,” said Aujali. “It is a sad story to tell . . . Benghazi is my home town. Chris talked to the people, he met the people. The main thing [was] he trusted them. He is a great loss to Libya. Chris, you see him once, you look for him again. I really cry with my family and for his family when we heard this news.”
A very old man moved quite smartly up the steps of the San Francisco City Hall, leaning lightly on the arm of an Asian marine, who was in full dress uniform. This old man turned out to be George Shultz, former secretary of state under president Reagan and now 91.
He spoke without notes and said he was wearing a tie on which was written the slogan: “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”
The ambassador’s family and the families of the three Americans who died with him – Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods and Seán Smith, there’s a slice of Irish-America for you – would have been well within their rights to point out that that world view seemed to have worked out better for Mr Shultz than it had for them. But they are not those kinds of families.
Instead we had Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of state, telling us about another video of Stevens that had gone viral. This one showed him drinking orange juice in a cafe, and the Libyans posted it, Pickering said, because they couldn’t believe someone so elevated could be so informal.
Proceedings were closed by the wonderfully named Right Rev William Swing, a former bishop of California. The choir singing America the Beautiful made some of us cry. Old ladies in crisp shirts left the memorial dry-eyed and waited calmly outside for their husbands or sons to bring the car around.