Inhospitable to greatness

Jon Margolis

October 16, 1992|By Jon Margolis

THERE was the president of the United States, perhaps the single most important person in the world, in the White House, being interviewed.

By an entertainer.

An articulate and enlightened entertainer, to be sure, not exactly song-and-dance man. But not a scholar, either.

Who did not wear his suit-coat. Larry King never wears his suit-coat. It's his trademark, his shtick, and compared with shticks, the president in the White House is bobkes.

But there they were, discussing matters of state, when Mr. King announced that they would stop for a commercial.

Actually, for a few commercials.

At which point a perspicacious observer asked, "Would Winston Churchill have put up with this?"

No.

Had Churchill deigned to be interviewed by a talk-show host at No. 10 Downing Street, some subaltern (that's British for "flunky") would have reminded him that, regardless of his escutcheon (that's British for "shtick"), he would keep his suit-coat on in the presence of His Majesty's First Minister or the appointment would be nil (that's British for "bobkes").

And who doubts that, had the interviewer broken for a commercial, Sir Winston would have picked up his whiskey glass, lit his cigar and bid his guest good day?

Churchill could afford to do that because he was a Great Man. George Bush is not, which is no insult to him. There are no great men anymore, nor any Great Women, either. And there may never be another.

This is an observation, not a lament. Though many folks long for heroes, the same technology that has rendered the Great Man obsolete has rendered him dangerous.

Not that they were ever benign. With few exceptions, Great Men tended to make war on lesser men and their women and children. Alexander I of Macedon deserved his nickname, but lots of villagers in what is now Syria and Iran paid the price for it. Julius Caesar, as someone later noted, did "bestride the narrow world like a Colossus." But Cicero, who was there, pointed out that "the very doing of wrong was a joy to him for its own sake."

Since then, several others have bestrode their worlds like colossi, but even the ones who were not soldiers were not exactly sweetie-pies, including the women. Elizabeth I was a mighty ruler, but ordering your own cousin beheaded disqualifies you from sweetie-piedom.

For centuries, the worlds these Great Men bestrode were indeed narrow. Only a handful of rivals and the few common folk who happened to get in the way really got hurt. More lethal weapons and more efficient communications and transportation changed all that. The first Great Man of the modern era was a Corsican fellow name of Bonaparte. He was a genius, he was enlightened, and he almost destroyed Europe, driven as he was by the conviction that he embodied the will of the people. Ross Perot must be a Napoleon fan.

Less than a century and a half later, other Great Men similarly convinced but less enlightened came even closer to destroying Europe. In fairness to greatness, they were stopped thanks to a couple of other Great Men, Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, but the danger of the combination of modern technology and charismatic leadership was manifest.

As Churchill, Roosevelt, Jefferson and Lincoln proved, Great Men are less dangerous in a democracy, which fetters the will of any single person. But even these honorable men reached for more power than republics can grant while remaining safely republican. Picture a younger, less scrupulous and more ambitious Ronald Reagan (our last colossus?) and imagine what he could do with the secret investigative apparatus of government, augmented by the latest intrusive technology.

Relax. The latest technology all but eliminates greatness. Now, public people enter our lives via television, where they are between 16 and 18 inches long. Some of us have caught bigger trout.

And no matter how great its pretensions (and how real, often, its contribution), television is entertainment. To be questioned by Larry King, Phil Donahue, Arsenio Hall or David Frost is to surrender grandeur. He who surrenders grandeur cannot be a Great Man.

The result, lots of not-so-great men and women, is more democratic, more homey, less awesome. Awe is out. We are no longer even in awe of the Great Men of the past. Were Roosevelt or John Kennedy to run for president these days, intrusive reporters would reveal both their physical ailments and their physical appetites, and that would be the end of them.

Because of his ailment, Kennedy used a rocking chair in the Oval Office. Sitting in it, he was interviewed. By Walter Cronkite. With their suit-coats on.

Jon Margolis writes a column for the Chicago Tribune.

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