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The Obituarists Remember Stanley Karnow

Welcome to This Week in Death, a recurring assessment of how we're remembering the recently departed.

The Vietnam War officially ended 38 years ago, and these days, its lessons tend to be drawn with broad brushes: Drafts are unpopular. Stick to winnable wars with specific objectives. Never get out of the boat.

But there was a time, not that long ago, when Americans were keenly interested in the micro-level details of the country where more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers died over the nation’s 20-year involvement. This week, the world learned of the deaths of both a key figure in Vietnam’s history and a prizewinning chronicler of it. On Sunday, Stanley Karnow, a journalist and author whose 1983 book and PBS miniseries on Vietnam won Emmys, ranked as a best-seller, and drew millions of viewers, died at 87. Former South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Khanh, who briefly ran the country in 1964 after a speedy, bloodless coup, died on Jan. 11 at 86, but word of his demise spread this week—in time for the New York Times to run both men’s obits on the same day.

Karnow comes in for wide and uncomplicated praise. Every outlet recalls that Richard Nixon put Karnow on his "enemies list," which, the Washington Post’s Stephanie Hanes reports, Karnow called, "half jokingly, 'one of the highlights of my life.'" "Unlike many books and films on Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s and the nightly newscasts that focused primarily on America’s role and its consequences at home and abroad, Mr. Karnow addressed all sides of the conflict and traced Vietnam’s culture and history," writes the Times' Robert D. McFadden. "Even-handed and thorough," the Los Angeles Times calls Karnow’s Vietnam: A History. "Karnow was known for his precision and research—his Vietnam book reaches back to ancient times—and his willingness to see past his own beliefs." The Associated Press' Hillel Italie, like other obit writers, notes that one of Karnow’s first stories as a stringer from Vietnam reported on the first U.S. deaths there in 1959 (Italie says Vietnam: A History was "widely regarded as an essential, even-handed summation.") The book, which Karnow later followed up with another well-regarded volume on U.S. involvement in the Philippines, was the product both of his wartime reporting and of extensive research and reportage long after the last American helicopter fled Saigon.

That "essential, even-handed book," as it happens, mentions Khanh on 20 pages, according to its index. The obits of the former general, though, were a little less widespread and a little less glowing than they were for the guy who wrote him up; a lesson any reader of the obit pages learns even faster than any moral of the Vietnam War is that journalists get great coverage in death. The Post didn’t take any note of Khanh’s passing, and the L.A. Times gives him only wire copy—even though the paper notes that Khanh would go on to run a Vietnamese "government in exile" from California after his brief stint in charge of the actual government. There’s some dispute over how to identify him, too: The AP calls him "Nguyen Khanh," and Khanh on second reference, while the New York Times goes with "General Khanh" on second reference. And the AP’s write-up on Khanh’s death included a photo of another "government in exile" leader altogether, Chanh Nguyen Huu, which led to corrections in several outlets that used the art. The obits leave the reader with the impression that Khanh’s timing was never great, up until the moment when he died in time for Karnow to bump him from the newspapers: He joined the French colonial army in 1954, the year France left Vietnam. His coup on Jan. 30, 1964, left him in power only until February 1965, when four junior officers deposed him. And in 1995, he set up the "Government of Free Vietnam in Exile" in Garden Grove, Calif.—just three months before Bill Clinton formally normalized diplomatic relations between Khanh’s former country and his new one.

The Company Jumps

An earlier war brought fame to Patty Andrews, who died Wednesday at 94: She was the last surviving member of the Andrews Sisters trio that became a signature part of the soundtrack of World War II. "With their jazzy renditions of songs like 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B),' 'Rum and Coca-Cola' and 'Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me),' Patty, Maxene and LaVerne Andrews sold war bonds, boosted morale on the home front, performed with Bing Crosby and with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, made movies and entertained thousands of American troops overseas, for whom the women represented the loves and the land the troops had left behind," The New York Times’ Robert Berkvist sums up. The sisters first hit it big in 1937 with a cover of the old Yiddish tune, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön," but only The Washington Post explains how three Greek-Norwegian girls from Mound, Minn., picked up that particular ditty: "We wanted to break into the Jewish resort circuit in the Catskill Mountains. We figured Greek girls singing Yiddish would knock ’em dead," the Post quotes Andrews telling the London Independent in 1990. After the war, things went a bit sour for the sisters; Andrews' first husband, agent Marty Melcher, left her for Doris Day in 1949 (though only the Los Angeles Times is indelicate enough to point that out explicitly, with other outlets simply noting that he married Day after divorcing Andrews), and when Patty Andrews went solo in 1953, the group never really recovered, even though they reunited three years later. A Bette Midler cover of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" in the early 1970s revived interest in their career, but LaVerne Andrews had died of cancer in 1967, and Maxene Andrews and Patty Andrews were estranged until Maxene died in 1995.

It was a tough week for musicians, besides Andrews: Ohio Players frontman Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner died on Saturday at 69, and Ann Rabson, the co-founder of Saffire—the Uppity Blues Woman, died Wednesday at 67.

All Death is Local

The Philadelphia Inquirer plays up the death of Philly TV icon Sally Starr, "the  gun-totin' cowgirl who rode a palomino with a silver saddle and introduced millions of children in the Philadelphia area to Popeye, Clutch Cargo, and the Three Stooges."

The New York Times writes a long obit of Edward M. Kresky, "an investment banker who was an architect of the debt refinancing plan that saved New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s."

And The Washington Post, the hometown paper of a newly resurgent baseball team, does a nostalgic write-up of the death of Chuck Hinton, the last player to hit .300 for the Washington Senators, who was "considered the best player on some atrocious Senators teams of the early 1960s."

Quote of the Week

"He had quite a journey in life." — Hans Massaquoi Jr., on his dad, Hans Massaquoi, whose obit in the UK's Independent is headlined: "Journalist Who Grew Up Black in Nazi Germany." In a memoir, the Independent notes, Massaquoi wrote "that one of his saddest moments as a child was when a teacher told him he could not join the Hitler Youth." But by 1951, he was drafted into the U.S. Army while studying aviation in Chicago, and eventually became managing editor of Ebony—and a U.S. citizen.