Thursday, May 12, 2011
The Virtue of Preemptive Honesty
Now that Newt Gingrich has formally tossed his hat into the 2012 ring, the GOP will have to determine for itself how willing it is to forgive a candidate with serious flaws. It remains to be seen whether the former House Speaker's role as resident bomb thrower and agitator will endear him to more than a specific audience. If he is to be taken seriously, Gingrich will need to radically reinvent himself. One cannot easily make a silk purse out of this sow's ear. Any effort to cozy up to Evangelical voters is bound to register only as cynical posturing, à la John McCain in 2008. Gingrich is neither a contrite, nor humble person by nature, a quality true to far too many who seek expanded powers. It could be argued that any Presidential campaign is a vain endeavor, but Gingrich has never been the sort of person to disguise his ambitions or the ways in which he has consolidated influence.
Americans are an odd people sometimes. Perhaps we are no different than anyone else. Our attitudes towards those in the public eye are equal parts voyeurism and envy. When hypocrisy or salaciousness are detected among major names, we much enjoy vocally registering our outrage. This process continues long enough for us to extinguish the critical and cathartic impulses we feel. These feelings subside and it's off to another person's unforgivable sins. It may seem like the end, but this is not the end. Wait long enough and the opportunity for a comeback arrives. Americans love a comeback and a return to form. Do we contradict ourselves? Very well then, we contradict ourselves. We are large. We contain multitudes.
Ours is also a culture where we are actively encouraged to be ashamed of our past. We hold ourselves and each other to impossible standards of purity and perfection. If we were capable of seeing outside those strongly drawn parameters, we might all be healthier and more grounded. Viewing ourselves and those we idolize through entirely different framing might be a activity worth contemplating. For example, I myself enjoy most of the early works of the poet T.S. Eliot. His later, denser, more heavily religious works win critical praise but don't do much for me. Most artists think that their current project is the most complete and most important. But really all they are is a snapshot in time, which will be eventually replaced with a newer series of still images. Our perception is often subjective. We like to believe in the idea of progress, in that what is to come is always better than what came before, but this isn't always true. Or rather, this isn't uniformly true. The past is better than the future in certain circumstances.
The most successful politicians are those who understand the complexities of perception. Poll numbers and numerical data have their own strict limitations. The best candidates are not those who can memorize trends, speaking only to the latest uptick in popular sentiment. Most politicians can win favor among a few, but securing an Amen Corner is not especially difficult. Amen Corners can be purchased easily. This is why flawed candidates like Gingrich find it hard to gain much traction. Sincerity requires a sincere heart, and though there may be a sucker born every minute, I find that people aren't nearly as gullible as all that.
During the last Presidential election cycle, some commentators questioned whether it was wise for Barack Obama to speak frankly about his own youthful indiscretions. Most of them were included in the then-Senator's first book, and had been public domain for years beforehand. Self-admitted passages about past drug use were a surprising non-issue, even when Hillary Clinton's campaign tried to make them into one. The Robert Altman HBO series Tanner '88 discusses this strategy. "Preemptive dirt digging just makes good sense. You've got to bust yourself first." This quote is pulled from a larger dialogue in which it is noted that, prior to running for President the first time, George W. Bush hired a private detective to accumulate evidence of past youthful dalliances. To his credit, or perhaps to the credit of his advisers, this was a very shrewd political move. Doing so takes the fun out of the process of investigative journalism, a tradition that stretches back to the muckrakers of the early Twentieth Century and has its real genesis with Watergate. By this means, a four-day exposé can be safely reduced to a two-day story, one without nearly as much bite and sting attached.
We admire blatant honesty, even if we don't sometimes know what to do with it. In my own life, I have sought to truthfully reveal parts of myself and elements of my past to encourage personal healing. When these past problems have been voiced in a public forum, they often produce silence, not vocal denunciation. People aren't quite sure what to do with it. We know how to condemn, especially for those we sense are hiding something. We are masters at righteous indignation. Candid speech is a virtue, but it's a virtue that is so frequently rare that we aren't practiced in how to respond to it. I work as hard at my writing, my activism, and my other passions so that we might live in a world where this was not the case. We can hold ourselves to a fair standard without expecting superhuman ability, but also not darkly concede that everything behind the curtain is rotten and corroded. That change starts within us. Forgive us, Father, for being human.