The apothegm "De mortuis nil nisi bonum" ("Of the dead, say nothing but good") urges compassion and respect for the recently deceased, no matter how flawed they were in life. That injunction was obeyed last week in a memorial conference arranged by Yale's Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy for Morton Charles Hill, the university's "Diplomat in Residence," who died, at 84, on March 27.
The conference webinar's virtually assembled (and tightly monitored) participants — some Yale faculty were "removed" by the website host from the "audience" — parodied unintentionally Hill's long career of diplomatic dissembling. A Vulcan conservative, he revered England's iron-fisted 17th-century Puritan "Lord Protector" Oliver Cromwell but also John Milton, an enigmatic diplomatic aide and chronicler whose work prefigured Hill's. He emulated both models at times in his own Foreign Service work and as a confidant and ghostwriter for secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; as the chief foreign policy adviser to Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign (during which Sen. Joe Biden quipped that Giuliani's every sentence "contains a verb, a noun and 9/11"); and as the purveyor to starstruck Yale students of his own dark, twisted reading of liberal education's great conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit.