Today brought the very sad news of Luther Vandross's passing, at the age of 54, in a hospital in Edison, New Jersey. A native New Yorker, Vandross began as a backup singer to artists like David Bowie and Bette Midler, then later sang jingles before launching his first solo album, Never Too Much, in 1981. His inimitably rich and supple voice, which never fails to leaven me, and his songs, which ranged from soul and R&B ballads to the catchiest pop you could imagine, have served as the lyric soundtrack to several generations. In particular, Vandross seemed to be able to capture again and again in his music the sheer joy you felt--and despite being a male singer, his work seemed to embody both the male and female emotional response--when falling and feeling in love. (He noted, however, that he didn't want to be thought of as the "prophet of love.")
Luther Vandross eventually became a Grammy-winning, multimillion-selling recording artist in his own right, earning plaudits from many of the extraordinary singers he had long admired, including Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle, and Roberta Flack. He had battled weight problems all his adult life, and some reports I've seen suggest that these struggles may have played a part in the devastating stroke he suffered at his home in Manhattan in 2003, from which he never fully recovered, though Oprah Winfrey late last year filmed him undergoing physical therapy. To Vandross himself, wherever he is, I say thank you; to his family and friends I send my sincere condolences; and to all out there, I say please put on a Luther Vandross song at some point today and every day for the next few weeks, months, years: "forever, for always, for love."
Changing directions and again turning to politics, I and the rest of the country learned today that Sandra Day O'Connor, the 75-year-old conservative jurist from Arizona and the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, has announced her retirement, effectively immediately. Although she was a lifelong Republican who was nominated to the Court by Ronald Reagan in 1981, and although she was reliably conservative in her early years in the court--at least in terms of how that term was once understood in our public discourse before the W administration took over--O'Connor eventually became the powerful and decisive swing vote in a series of major decisions that effectively showed, if not a liberal bent, some flexibility tending towards moderation and restraint in judicial decisions. (The right wing, emblematized in the photo at right by Barry Goldwater (2nd from left) and Strom Thurmond (far right), has consistently labeled this and any decisions they disagree with "judicial activism.")
Among her landmark votes of this sort were ones to force a Mississippi women's nursing school to admit men; to brake attempts to reverse Roe v. Wade; to uphold some types of affirmative action; to overturn the oppressive anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas; to end the execution of minors; and to require adequate legal representation for those facing trial. She also infamously joined with the four other conservatives in 2000 to halt the counting of votes in Florida, effectively staging an electoral coup and handing George W. Bush the Presidency. (She was reported to have made a negative comment when she initially heard that Al Gore might have won; I always wonder if she regretted having played a part in installing the worst president in our history.)
News sources, including many blogs, will be posting extensive coverage of what is one of today's major domestic news items, so I'll end here and note only that as a nation, our best hope is that both members of the President's party and the Democratic opposition can sufficiently press him to nominate one of the sager and more reasonable conservatives he's been considering. There aren't many, from the names I've seen, but among the bad lot there are a few who might turn out not to be disasters like Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia, or totally positive surprises like David Souter and, more recently, Anthony Kennedy. Alberto Gonzales, the current Attorney General, who has been linked to a series of memos enabling the abuse and torture of prisoners at the prisons in Guantánamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan and who would become the first Latino ever to be seated on the Supreme Court, strikes me as one possible such choice. The President's ultraconservative supporters, however, are demanding someone of a more extreme judicial philosophy, along the lines of Antonin Scalia and Thomas, so being vocal and persistent, I think, in challenging them is going to be crucial once we learn of the nominee.