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All Joking Aside

Joe Holley

So a man tells a joke, and years later that's what ends up in his obituary? Such is the fate that befell Nixon-era agriculture secretary, Earl L. Butz, who died Saturday.

Hey, a joke's a good way to go out; I'd love to leave 'em laughing. Unfortunately, Mr. Butz's obscene joke about African Americans was terribly offensive, and the telling of it cost him his job. The moral? Think twice, maybe thrice, before you hear yourself utter, "A man walks into a bar. . . ."

Delicate allusions to Mr. Butz's fateful jocularity were in all the obituaries, and a Rehoboth Beach reader, for one, was not pleased. "Mean-spirited and beneath your normal standards," is the way she characterized the wire-service version that ran in the Post. Alas, an obituary is not a memorial; it's a news story about a person's life, warts and all. No joke.

By Joe Holley  |  February 4, 2008; 11:11 AM ET
Categories:  Joe Holley  
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It's not easy to shock me, but a brief Google search revealed Mr. Butz's quote and I was astonished. Characterizing it as a joke is a bit of a was more of a nasty example of racially offensive doggerel. I'm not normally one to condemn people for the occasional throwaway line, but this was so egregious that I believe it *does* warrant a mention in his obituary.

Posted by: PJ Geraghty | February 4, 2008 12:13 PM | Report abuse

It was his time in the Reagan administration that put Earl Butz in a position to warrant a slew of obituaries. The "joke" he told ultimately cost him his job, and as such, is a vital part of his life story. Small "joke", huge impact.

Posted by: Didius Falco | February 4, 2008 11:38 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: Kim Carlson | May 13, 2008 2:14 PM | Report abuse

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