More is expected from our leaders

January 23, 2001|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

MIAMI -- What's the deal with great men lately?

Meaning the celebrated ones who have enjoyed a certain moral authority by dint of job title or personal reputation.

They've been falling like rain in recent years, felled by one embarrassing sexual revelation after another.

I'm talking about Bob Packwood, Jimmy Swaggart, Dan Burton, Julius Erving, Bill Clinton. And now, Jesse Jackson, who just confessed to fathering a girl, now 20 months old, by a woman who is not his wife.

Candidly, I'd probably be having a lot more fun with Mr. Jackson's predicament if he were some Bible-beating blowhard who'd made a career preaching so-called family values.

But though his peripatetic style of activism is often off-putting, Mr. Jackson is a man whose agenda of protest for human rights resonates with me, at least in its broadest outlines.

So there's a keener sense of ... disappointment.

There is, however, absolutely no sense of surprise.

Somewhere along the way, I've lost the capacity to be stunned by low behavior from men in high places, particularly when it involves sexual indiscretion. In fact, some part of me has even come to "expect" such behavior.

I mean, if you told me tomorrow that Michael Jordan had done the same thing Jesse Jackson did, I wouldn't be shocked. Pained, yes, but not shocked.

I'm still trying to decide if that represents cynicism, a lamentable tolerance of moral hypocrisy, a world-weary ability to compartmentalize moral failings ... or all of the above.

No, sexual misconduct is not exactly a new development among public figures. Thomas Jefferson fathered a child by one of his slaves. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Martin Luther King all had girlfriends. Their reputations for greatness have somehow survived.

But it probably helps that they're all long dead and that, with the exception of Jefferson, their dalliances were barely even whispered about during their lifetimes. We never had to look Kennedy or King in the eye, trying to gauge the distance from their loftiest rhetoric to their basest behaviors.

Jesse Jackson, though, we'll see again in a few days. How to look at him the same way?

The issue is not forgiveness. We'll forgive, certainly. But will we forget? Moral authority is a precious and perishable thing. We give it less freely than we once did, because we've been disappointed so much.

So the issue, you see, is trust, the ability to believe not just in a great man's word, but in a great man's way ... the lofty things for which he professes to stand.

How can you believe those things when he appears not to believe them himself?

Jesse Jackson is a Christian minister, after all. Thirty-eight years ago, he made a promise to his bride and that's supposed to mean something. Twenty-nine months ago, it evidently didn't mean enough. And how little like a man of God he suddenly seems.

It's human, yes. It happens. Happens to the baker, the banker, the barber, the surgeon. But it is necessarily different when it happens to the preacher, the president, the great man. To accept a higher calling is to accept a higher responsibility.

Unfortunately, from Bill Clinton on down, we keep seeing great men shirk that responsibility. Apparently, they think they can get away with it ... never mind that we live in the era of 24-hour news cycles and tell-all reportage.

Media have changed. Human nature, unfortunately, has not.

People give in. I'm not without sympathy for that.

But at the same time, I'm impatient with having to stand braced for moral hypocrisy from those who are supposed to embody nobler things.

There's an old Temptations song that says, "We're all made with feet of clay and some dreams" ... meaning, I think, that we delude ourselves into thinking we can rise above our own stumbling, our own weakness, ego and mendacity, to reach the place where moral perfection lives.

We can't, of course. But that doesn't mean you stop trying. Because in the act of reaching, we are ennobled.

Thing is, the great men are supposed to remind us of that.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He may be reached via e-mail at leonardpitts@mindspring.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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