By Guy Somerset
Long ago I was acquainted with a man in politics widely known to be a letch. The prettier girls on the campaign trail were warned to be wary of him. The more insecure husbands guarded their wives from him. The entire population of the party seemed to have a version of some story they heard about his exploits. Such accounts were only enhanced by the fact he was rather handsome, wealthy and always well-dressed; the fear of dozens of scorned lovers caused his staff no small amount of concern.
However, oddly enough, through all the time I knew him I never once actually saw him with a woman in private. During the after-hours of a party following a winning campaign, when everyone else was either asleep or inebriated, I delicately broached the subject amid reams of fallen confetti.
The candidate quickly glanced over his shoulder to ensure no one was within earshot and confessed in all the years of his charade none had ever noticed the singularly lacking feature of these tales. It turned out he was in a long-standing relationship with a very beautiful woman who likewise had her own successful career, thus making it impractical for them to be together. Yet he knew the inevitable rumors (dangerous now, deadly then) which attached to single men of a certain age.
It was the candidate himself who had created the entirely fictional persona of a lothario. In point of fact, and assuredly to the bafflement of his opponents, if anyone wanted to uncover evidence of his alleged affairs there was none to be found. He hadn't so much as taken a single female to coffee in ten years.
Herein lies the difference between what people say and what people do. Though in the above instance a moral man used the convenience of an amoral reputation, more often the contrary is the case. Below are some of the lordly figures who have made less lofty statements while endeavoring to do good.
If George Washington was "The Father of the Country" then Abraham Lincoln was "The Man who Freed the Slaves." Whether these monikers are strictly accurate is less important than what they reveal about the pantheon of American heroes.
Lincoln was indeed the President who set the United States ablaze in the worst conflict of its history. Though it must be asserted there were multiple causes for the conflagration known as the Civil War, indubitably among the foremost was slavery and its proposed expansion into the Western territories. As a result on January 1, 1863, was signed the Emancipation Proclamation which released the slaves from bondage. Or, some of them. The rest were given liberty two years later.
Contrary to the elegiacs, Abraham Lincoln was more than a monument but also...a man. An individual far more nuanced on his opinions of Africans than the history books would indicate. Throughout his career he had a habit of reassuring constituents of how he truly felt about people of color and whether they should serve on juries, whether they should remain in his country and even whether all slaves should be free or, as in the case of the Emancipation Proclamation, only those living in Confederate states.
Of the more problematic statements for historians, when Lincoln wrote to editor Horace Greeley, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."
Hailing from India Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was educated as a lawyer and worked in the civil service of South Africa as a young man. Witnessing injustice first-hand abroad, he returned home to find it established there as well. Among the initial issues around which he organized were for peasants' rights and against excessive taxation.
Eventually Gandhi expanded his advocacy to all Indians, being a staunch proponent of peaceful demonstration to address the wrongs of discrimination. Moreover he strived to create a nation founded upon religious pluralism which would encompass all faiths; Hindu, Muslim and Christian alike.
Unfortunately, as altruistic as Gandhi was, he was also...a man. In the very first volume of his one hundred volume collection of works he decries that a decent Indian could be equated with "a Kaffir." If one is unfamiliar with the term, it is a highly derogatory slur for Blacks.
Worse, this is not an isolated incidence. If one bothers to read him Gandhi has a very definite attitude toward Africans and it is as intensively negative as anything written by slave-holders in antiquity. This was a mindset which was not of the moment, but is documented over the course of fifteen years.
One of his more illuminating passages was a fear the Indian experience in Africa might "degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness."
Nobel Peace-Prize winner Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated as one of the new prophets of secularization. He has his own national holiday and almost as many streets named after him than there are Cadillacs in Detroit. To a large extent this idolization is the result of admirable advocacy of non-violent protest during a time of volatile social change.
However, while Dr. King the martyr may be sanctified Dr. King the man is hardly sanitized. Aside from the verifiable fact he was a plagiarist of epic proportions, stealing large selections of everything from his Doctoral thesis to the "I Have a Dream" speech, King was like most men...a man.
In that era the FBI considered King's numerous ties with known Communists to be a national security threat therefore agents wiretapped his hotel rooms and private residences. Typical exclamations by King recorded on these tapes while engaging in flagrante delicto with numerous woman not his wife were less worthy of a "Dream" than a fantasy: "I'm f*cking for G*d!" and "I'm not a Negro tonight!"
So to what end are these unseemly statements reviewed? Certainly not in the pursuit of demonizing or diminishing any accomplishments of those who made them. Irrespective of personal failings each man contributed mightily to society.
However he thought about them, Lincoln did by decree free the slaves. Whatever he felt about Blacks, Gandhi did through passive resistance expand their rights. Although he said inexcusable comments in private, King did overcome his corporeal desires to inspire millions to action.
Thus before overreacting with unmitigated hysteria to an audio a decade old with Donald Trump saying words which are offensive but otherwise innocuous, we should consider the context of humanity.
Under the current criteria for public office every one of the esteemed men above would be forbidden a place in the public square. The absurdity of such abnormally high standards for behavior should give intelligent people great pause before casually casting out perceived transgressors - for Lincoln, Gandhi and King would all be included among these deplorables.
Whether Trump could even hope to someday be worthy of the aforementioned pantheon is undetermined, if not dubious. Though however he is judged by either his contemporaries or his eventual chroniclers it should be based on his actual achievements or lack thereof and not premised upon puerile comments uttered in a moment of immaturity.
While there are a myriad ways in which to demark adolescence from adulthood, perhaps the most salient is the point when an individual realizes even the greatest men and women are not insuperable avatars of our personal idealism but merely mortals much the same as everyone else.
In this the most concise description for becoming a developed citizen is that we cannot judge leaders by what they think, or what they feel, or even what they say...we can only judge them by what they do.
Guy Somerset writes from somewhere in America