Heroes and their Valets

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 - 02:27 PM

Walkers (Thomas Leuthard/flickr)

We have left the age of heroes behind us, perhaps forever. They say no man is a hero to his valet, and why is that? Because your personal attendant knows too much about you. He sees you with bed head, watches you swipe your runny nose when you have a cold, and finds your keys when you misplace them day after day after day. Your valet (if you have one) sees you as nothing but a fallible creature — not a hero, but a human.

Today, the gossip that used to be restricted to kitchens and living rooms is now broadcast instantly and broadly on multiple platforms. We know more than we want to about celebrities and political figures. In the 1700s, maybe no man was a hero to his valet. Now, no man is a hero.

Let me test this out a bit. Take a listen to this piece of music, maybe the Intermezzo by Johannes Brahms. Now, what if I told you that Brahms wore cheap clothes, shoes without socks, was widely known as a long-bearded grump, and was very likely carrying on an adulterous relationship with the wife of a man who'd taken him into his home. Does that change the way you hear this music?

Here's another more current example: Here's a comment made by a world leader about September 11: "The real differences around the world today are not between Jews and Arabs; Protestants and Catholics; Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. The real differences are between those who embrace peace and those who would destroy it; between those who look to the future and those who cling to the past; between those who open their arms and those who are determined to clench their fists.”

Now do those words seem less inspiring if I tell you they were spoken by Bill Clinton, a man who was impeached because of sexual improprieties in the White House?

And the Monica Lewinsky debacle is a good example of what I'm talking about. Benjamin Franklin was a scoundrel, a real skirt-chaser. But that's not what he's remembered for, because only a select number of friends and family members knew that at the time. His legacy was handed down relatively unscathed by scandal.

Lord Byron was an awful person, Auguste Rodin was a total jerk. Michelangelo had anger issues, Handel once held a soprano out of a window until she agreed to do what he told her. And Martin Luther King, Jr. was hardly a saint. He cheated on his wife more than once and plagiarized a large portion of his doctoral dissertation. But none of that was widely known until after his death. Would it have influenced our memory of the man if he'd been forced to answer questions from reporters about sexual misconduct?

We see stories about Barack Obama trying pot, or Mitt Romney harassing a fellow student in high school, and I'm hardly shocked. My diary from ninth and tenth grade still exists somewhere in the world, and that fact will probably keep me out of politics forever. The fact is, there is no human being who can withstand the scrutiny our leaders and celebrities are subjected to.

Does it matter? Well, to some extent, it keeps us buried in the past. The only people who seem acceptable as role models are dead and buried. Have to take down those Tiger Woods posters from your kids' room, right? So we celebrate Jackie Robinson instead. Nothing wrong with that, but what about the Williams sisters? If they aren't heroes because of rowdy behavior on the tennis court, then how do we justify idolizing a man like Babe Ruth, a confirmed womanizer and alcoholic?

You can blame CNN and the 24-hour news cycle that needed news to fill the time on slow days. Or you can blame the internet, blogs, Twitter, or any number of other things. The fact is, we no longer have to wait until after someone has passed to learn all of their dirty secrets.

Maybe at some point, it will all become background noise. The stories about Obama's college years and Romney's wife's dressage hobby. Maybe it will become so commonplace that it's not worth a headline anymore. But in the meantime, it seems unlikely that either candidate will ever be described as heroes, without extensive footnotes added to the plaque.

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