MannersWatch: Andy Rooney: Is It Wrong to Speak Ill of the Dead?

11/07/2011 04:48 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Facts: In December 1989, 60 Minutes' Andy Rooney said in a special broadcast that the year would be remembered for "the fact that many of the ills which kill us are self-induced: too much alcohol, too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, cigarettes. They're all known to lead quite often to premature death." The outcry from gay groups like GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) was swift and vociferous, quickly leading to a three-month suspension for Mr. Rooney (shortened to less than a month when the news magazine's ratings tumbled without the presence of its resident curmudgeon and homophobe).

Seven years later, in 1996, the unrepentant Rooney told Television Quarterly: "I find what they [the gays] do to each other repugnant." Andy Rooney died this past Friday at age 92.

The Faux Pas: If there's been a mainstay of high manners when it comes to the dearly departed, it is "speak no ill of them." Let bygones be bygones. But as the remembrances and appreciations of Andy Rooney came pouring forth this weekend, there's been much debate about the lack of civility in pointing out Rooney's various homophobic comments during his career, including this so-called apology made to Advocate reporter Chris Bull. Noting that he was sorry for his remark that "homosexual unions ... lead quite often to premature death," Rooney continued to equate being gay with having HIV/AIDS, adding, "[H]omosexuality is inherently dangerous." Then the 60 Minutes "curmudgeon" turned the focus to African Americans, with Bull quoting him as saying, "I've believed all along that most people are born with equal intelligence, but blacks have watered down their genes because the less intelligent ones are the ones that have the most children. They drop out of school early, do drugs, and get pregnant."

The Fix: It's one thing to apply the "speak no ill of the dead" rule to family members, colleagues and friends (although admissions of fraud, pedophilia, and other crimes make even that a slippery slope today). But when it comes to a public figure like Rooney, turning him into a 21st-century Mark Twain, devoid of warts and rancor, a cuddly teddy bear of a grandfather, is to whitewash the man and his legacy.

The Finding: It's not only appropriate to speak the truth about the deceased but necessary to set the record straight. Our newspaper appreciations and broadcast obituaries play a vital role in creating the first take on history and how and what we choose to remember.

Agree? Disagree? Let 'er rip.

Steven Petrow is a nationally recognized manners columnist and the author of Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners. You can find him online here and on Facebook here.