Farewell to Jeffrey Zaslow: Chronicler of ‘The Last Lecture’

Jeffrey Zaslow (right), who died yesterday, with Randy Pausch (left), the Carnegie Mellon professor whose "Last Lecture," delivered shortly before he died from pancreatic cancer, was immortalized in a Wall Street Journal story that Zazlow wrote.

Saddened to hear that Jeffrey Zaslow, the Wall Street Journal reporter who immortalized Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” died yesterday.  Tragically, his car went off course on a snowy street and crashed into a truck.

Zaslow covered Pausch’s last lecture, bringing the Carnegie Mellon professor and his life philosophy to international renown.  Pausch died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 but not before he gave us some wonderful guidelines for living our lives — guidelines that found their way to a worldwide audience thanks to Zaslow:

“Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things.”

“Wait long enough, and people will surprise and impress you.”

“If your kids want to paint their bedrooms, as a favor to me, let ’em do it.”

In a field in which covering money, power and politics is considered the pinnacle of one’s career, Zaslow never lost sight of what was really important.  He deployed his jaw-dropping writing talent to spotlight not only Pausch but also many other “soft” topics — such as fathers who tuck notes into their daughters’ lunchboxes, and the sadness he felt when he saw the wrecking ball demolish a stadium he loved in his youth.  In a world thirsty for real heroes (and not just celebrities with savvy public relations advisors), he helped write biographies of two: “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed his plane in the Hudson River, and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

His reporting was thorough, honest and heartfelt without being mawkish.  It appealed to both blue-state cynics and the red-state family values crowd.  And in a world preoccupied with billionaire tax returns, Mideast tribal warfare and the latest Kardashian capers, Zaslow wrote about what was really important.

I’ve read that many fathers, powerful men, started writing lunchbox notes to their daughters after reading his column about it.  Imagine the hundreds of women who will now have higher standards for the men in their lives because of this.  And on a broader scale, imagine the many thousands if not millions of people who’ve vowed to follow their dreams, work harder, believe in themselves and be better spouses, friends and parents because Zaslow introduced them to Pausch’s ideas.

One nagging question is how Zaslow found a platform at the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that celebrates money, power and the ruthless people who pursue it.  Especially in the past few years, as part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, the Journal has moved so far to the right that I barely recognize it any more.  I think it’s a testament to the power of Zaslow’s writing that he was able to command a following from this unlikely base.  And while I hate the fact that the Journal has become such a mouthpiece for the right wing, I am glad that they recognized the value of Zaslow’s type of reporting.

I often get disheartened when I watch the news.  We have so many ways to get it now, but the focus never wavers from bad news and sensationalism.  The anchors and reporters are blow-dried, focus-group-tested, strident and often righteous. Some deliver the news in an aggrieved voice and I always wait for an eyebrow to arch up, involuntarily signaling where they stand. I especially hate when a group of panelists try to out-shout one another.  It gives me a headache.

We need more reporters like Zaslow – people who are willing to train the spotlight on what’s right with the world, and on people who show us how to live, with both journalistic rigor and gentleness.  RIP, Jeffrey Zaslow.

O, Jackie! So glad you never knew Rebekah

By now the entire universe is buzzing about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s candid interviews about her White House years, released 47 years after they were taped. Her daughter Caroline, the curator of the tapes, has presented them in a new book and has talked about them in reserved, carefully staged interviews with the media.

For those of us who came of age in the 60s, the realization that Jackie is human – and capable of gossip, pettiness and insecurity – does little to change the impact she had on how we lived. Her style, her class and her fortitude inspired all of us. They became calcified in our memories long before these new tapes had the chance to re-mold them.

The hats my mother wore to Sunday Mass, the camel double-breasted coats we wore every winter, the tartan plaid lunchboxes we carried to the school bus stop (when everybody else had Flintstone lunchboxes) were all influenced by Jackie’s understated style.

Moreover, her classy bearing was an inspiration even to those of us who were not raised in Newport, who grew up in working-class mill towns like mine. Whenever we struggled with the inevitable cruelties of the playground and schoolyard, whenever we faced slights that had us hanging on to dignity by our fingernails, my mom gently reminded us to do what Jackie would do.

Hold up your head. Sweep right past them. Say nothing. Be as regal as a queen, as impenetrable as a Sphinx.

I wonder if how long Jackie would have been able to keep this protective shield charm going if she were a young First Lady today, married to an achingly attractive, charismatic President with a wandering eye. As years went by she had her struggles with paparazzo Ron Galella and author Kitty Kelly. But could Camelot and her regal image have survived Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks?

Would the New York Post have trained a long lens on Jackie as she sunbathed on Onassis’s yacht — looking for signs of cellulite, wrinkles and frizz that can be circled in red on page one? Would a Murdoch minion have tapped her cell phone? Would her secrets, her self-doubts, her faux pas, her makeup-free days be fair game for the front cover of “In Touch” magazine?

Just imagine the headlines that could have resulted if those taped conversations had been captured in real time:

Jackie ‘a dud’ with in-laws
JFK’s semi-nude White House romps
Jackie calls author ‘lesbian’
First Lady trashes Pat Nixon’s perm
Puppy love: Smitten Khruschev delivers pooch to White House
Indira a ‘prune?’
Jackie disses MLK
Sukarno takes Jackie as second wife

I’d like to think that some public figures like Jackie are beyond the reach of meddlers who feel nobody is entitled to a private life. I’d like to think that her class, her contributions as First Lady and her accomplishments would put her in a different category than the long list of public figures ruined by their private slips of the tongue and indiscretions. Today the pedestal of public admiration is as precarious as a stilt, and in a heartbeat can turn into a rail for a tarred-and-feathered fallen hero.

Something tells me that it’s a good thing that Jackie lived in an earlier, more respectful era, so that in our minds she can remain like the heroine of a silent movie: beautiful, brave, classy, perfect…and silent.