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Denying the famous their foibles

This image is one of the few available that shows Woodrow Wilson after he had suffered the massive stroke that derailed his presidency and finally ended his life.  Of course at the time, media accounts mainly masked his condition with the complicit efforts of Edith, his wife.  During the worst of it, as August Heckscher put it, “no proclamations were issued, no pardons granted, bills became law without a signature.  The regular meetings of cabinet members gave the country the impression that some matters were being dealt with.”  But the nation was being run on autopilot, or worse, not running at all.

One can understand though scarcely excuse Edith’s coverup.  Naturally a loyalist, she hoped for a fuller recovery than materialized.  But by the end Wilson was a shell of his former intellectually accomplished self; self-deluded, he actually imagined he would seek a third term.  Brought quickly back to reasonability on the matter, Wilson finished his term and lived briefly incapacitated in retirement before dying in early 1924.

The impulse to cover up the limitations of accomplished men and women is formidable but finally inexplicable.  Why must we imagine that persons of achievement are angels in disguise, that they lack the volatile tempers of lesser mortals, or suffer less the ravages of age or infirmity, or are missing the emotional vulnerabilities that make everyone at some point the victim of ego or infatuation or insecurity?  Time after time, we willingly shield the true range of human experience from broader view.  Hidden behind euphemism, protected by devoted followers and by those with a vested self interest in promoting the Master’s career, human imperfections are actually often compounded, nurtured, sometimes bursting into public view as extreme episodes of acting out.

The examples are too numerous to count but the variations illuminate the complex interactions between achievement and weakness.

Sometimes the ugliness hidden from view seems irrelevant to accomplishment.  PBS has been running an adulatory American Masters documentary on the left-wing singer and activist Pete Seeger (the If I Had A Hammer guy).  The film completely skips the rougher parts of the biography on which it is based, David King Dunaway’s How Can I Keep from Singing?  The Ballad of Pete Seeger (Villard reprint, 2008).  The biography is more meticulous than the PBS show in revealing his naivete and flashed anger and even his occasional craziness; all this is only glancingly mentioned in the film’s interviews with colleagues who speak euphemistically about his wife having held things together and raised the children when Seeger was so often absent.  But do these things matter?  One can argue for their irrelevance; after all, the sweet singing remains and the crowds are inspired.

Sometimes the foibles seem actually to perfect the art, and so one reads about the artists who are difficult or perfectionists (translation:  jerks).  It’s hard to capture the volcanic tempers in action, but take a look at Leonard Bernstein working in a sound studio with Jose Carreras on what was to be a new recording of West Side Story.  Bernstein is old and maybe sick and certainly tired.  He is also, frankly, nasty and short, volcanically impatient.  Perhaps his volatility improves the performance – he will not tolerate anything less than perfection – or maybe it subverts it by traumatizing the other performers.  Who knows?

The question seems academic but with the nation poised to potentially elect John McCain, whose outbursts are even more legendarily incandescent, it seems to me it has tremendous importance.


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