Goodbye, Stanley

tags: obituary, Stanley Kutler

Bernard Weisberger taught history at Antioch, Wayne State, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester and Vassar before becoming a full time freelance historian and a columnist at American Heritage.

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Stanley Kutler died yesterday and we are all poorer for his passing. Our profession has lost a superlative historian, the country has lost a genuine patriot, and on this gray morning here in Chicago I feel particularly impoverished because I have also lost an incomparable friend.

I didn’t get to know Stan personally until some fifteen or twenty years ago, when I had recently moved to Chicago and a mutual friend brought us together at a lunch. Thereafter, whenever he came to the city to visit family members, or to work with actors and directors on a play he was writing about Nixon, we would meet to eat in one of the restaurants that he knew and liked. In recent years, when arthritis and the heart disease made it too hard for him to get around, I would take the bus to Madison to spend an afternoon with him. A six hour round trip for two hours in his company was one of the best bargains of my lifetime.

Sharing a meal with Stan was always an experience to be savored. He would do much, if not most of the talking, and it was a pleasure to listen. Omniscient in all things from the records of the Cleveland Indians whom he followed while growing up to the minutiae of relatively obscure Supreme Court cases, his power of recall never failed to amaze me. When we first met he immediately recalled that my daughter Beth had been in one of his undergraduate classes years earlier. But what I recall most vividly is his laughter. He clearly enjoyed whatever he did, and approached any subject with robust humor, sharp intelligence, and a penetrating eye for pretense. He was generous in praise to those he admired, forthright but not nasty in skewering those whom he didn’t.

If he took pleasure in deflating some fellow academic’s view, you could be sure that it was based on a prodigious familiarity with that professor’s works. His deep respect for learning shone through that wry wit, and his genuine appreciation of the Constitution sparkled throughout his running commentary. I think that one of the reasons he became such a formidable expert in the history of the wars of Watergate was because he was truly angry at the cast of rogues and liars filling the ranks of the Committee to Reelect the President (how appropriately named CREEP) that summer of 1972, up to ane especially including the Unindicted Co-Conspirator in the White House.

Stan was a fighting progressive down to the wire. The blogs he wrote for online “publications” like Truthdig crackled with bite and insight. But he was never self-righteous and knew that there are always fools to be found on both sides of an argument. He was angry but always accurate. The nation owes him a debt of gratitude for not letting Nixon and his heirs get away with re-writing the record. That, to him, was the real crime. History was his pleasure and his passion, and history had to rest on the solid foundations of good documentation and thorough investigation.

What I would not give for just one more hour of hearty eating, down-to-earth conversation and boisterous laughter with Stanley. He was simply “best of breed” in our calling.

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