An essay on icons of privilege and power in a skeptical world
Here and there, the turning leaves of autumn have begun to fall. A few leaders, or those who would have the world cling to such notions, have already preceded them. Alberto Gonzales has finally ended the torment of his pathetically inept performance as U.S. Attorney General, his tumble from a post he never should have held no doubt accelerated by the high-ranking members of the senate judiciary committee from both parties who publicly questioned his integrity. In addition to possessing unimpeachable credentials of honesty, it is always a good idea for holders of important public office to have —and be seen to have— an IQ above room temperature. It is hard to imagine an Attorney General in the 21st century who could make John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s disgraced and eventually imprisoned AG, look better. But with his almost terminal state of amnesia about what was happening around him and his frequent reconstruction of key events which was later discredited by first-hand witnesses, Al Gonzales, the good friend of President George W. Bush, seems to have made that feat his defining accomplishment.
U.S. Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) fell from office on the floor of a men’s washroom of all places. But with his guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge, which he later recanted, followed by the announcement of his resignation last week and its sudden reversal a few days later, it would seem that Senator Craig has revealed an almost criminal level of indecision which itself should constitute grounds for his departure.
Former senator and recent TV star Fred Thompson’s entry into the Republican race for president would have fallen considerably short of the high expectations he generated —if it had ever gotten off the ground. A formal announcement on Jay Leno? Is this man really running for president or is he just planning to play one on TV? Many are already asking why this grumpy looking late entry thinks he could, or should, be elected president. His early appearances in Iowa and elsewhere suggest he hasn’t gotten around to figuring out the answer yet. Call in the Law and Order screenwriters.
The war in Iraq is increasingly viewed by Americans as the greatest foreign policy blunder in the country’s history. With the decline in support for the war, the popularity of its presidential chief architect swiftly follows. A majority of voting Americans believe the war has been a mistake and is not worth the cost. Only 26 percent approve of President Bush’s handling of the war, a figure that brings him perilously close to the low reached by President Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam.
In Toronto, movie stars have descended upon that city’s annual film festival in their private jets and block-long limousines. The carnival atmosphere of actors, groupies, paparazzi and high-powered parties has once again overtaken the town —or at least its better bars and hotels— that regularly appears in movies as New York, Boston or Chicago but rarely its actual self. It is an industry that is given to illusion, where it is difficult to distinguish between facts and myth and where hype often overshadows reality. Some stars are at the festival to promote their newest films. Others are there to promote their special cause and just coincidentally have a new movie to promote, too. Is it not remarkable how things work out with almost mathematically serendipitous precision for those with wealth, fame and cosmetically enhanced features?
Efforts to make the world better on the part of those endowed with privilege and opportunity are always to be commended. But sometimes, between the posing and the parties, the lavish displays of self-indulgence and the overreaching strides of the ever-glittering ego, the gravity and significance of the cause seem to get lost somewhere in the back of the limousine.
Why do so many leaders seem ultimately to be impostors in that role and ill-suited to its demands? Why do so many celebrities need to have their favorite causes accompanied by a traveling sideshow of parties, acolytes and five-star hotel suites? I suppose one should leave those answers to the psychologists. But even to the untrained eye there seems to be a narcissistic compulsion on the part of some members of the rich and powerful for constant attention and adulation. The applause and approval of the crowd become an irresistible addiction; the exercise of influence and power a thirst that can never be fully quenched. We are seeing the rise of what I call the virtue celebrity, where the pursuit of charitable endeavors and the recognition they bring has become one more weapon in the arsenal of personal and career marketing on the part of stars and billionaires. It is a world where success and public approbation has always required a good publicity agent. Now it requires a popular social cause as well.
Yet the more rich and powerful leaders and celebrities become, the more out of touch with reality they seem to drift. Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and Bill Clinton during his Monica days spring to mind. So does the procession of disgraced billionaire business figures and those more recently caught backdating stock options in order to grab a handful of extra dollars. More than a few have resorted to philanthropy and the pursuit of a socially laudable cause as a means of repairing a reputation damaged by their own misconduct or trying to impress regulators and prosecutors in the midst of investigations of wrongdoing. There is, it seems, never a shortage of announcements of gala dinners for yet another award ceremony or full-page advertisements extolling some stock option-rich benefactor whose endowment will be honored by his name appearing in large chiseled letters over the transom (the exterior of the Rotman business school building at the University of Toronto, for instance, displays the name of the donor financier in eight separate locations before you even reach the lobby). It becomes difficult even for the Panglossians among us not to occasionally wonder if such exercises are more about the feeding of oversized egos, and the creation of more places for the exalted to further exalt one another, than they are an authentically altruistic desire to make the world happier, healthier or wiser.
Some, of course, are genuine in their aspirations to make the world better. But a litmus test for sincerity is often humility —one of those rather underrated virtues that mothers try to teach but regrettably enjoys few adherents in the pantheon of the self-elevated.
Having worked with many of these kinds of people over the years, I have been struck by the fact that while they bask in the title and adulation that goes with being a public figure or celebrity connected to a special cause, often they fall measurably short when set against the lives, actions and sacrifice of more ordinary folks. The most impressive leaders I have known are those we generally never hear about. They are among the millions of individuals quietly performing acts of leadership and philanthropy who would never dream of making a side show out of it or posing for celebratory photos. They know their own limits and have a sense of perspective —two attributes which often elude the high-profile elite. They mentor the kids from broken homes, help out at the local hospital and travel to far-off parts of the world to fight hunger and disease. They seek no reward or title. They are always dipping into their own pockets to help out. You will not see their great feats of daily heroism on network TV, nor will you read about them besmirching the office they hold in the New York Times or elsewhere. They go about the important business of helping and inspiring others with a quiet dignity and strength of character that is often infectious. They are cut from the same powerfully modest mold as Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson —two of my personal heroes. They don’t need gala dinners, praising cover stories in major magazines or induction in, say, the Order of Canada whose membership still includes convicted felon Conrad Black and fugitive from U.S. justice Garth Drabinsky. And while many are incredibly generous in their charitable giving, they would not dream of having something named after them. Unlike the nouveau billionaire class, who seem to need the accompaniment of a brass band, klieg lights and a posse of publicity agents every time they make a donation, several millionaires I know write substantial checks each year and don’t even bother claiming the gifts for tax purposes.
The world will always need its larger than life figures —its Winston Churchills, its John F. Kennedys, its Pierre Elliott Trudeaus— to envision and inspire in new directions. They are few and far between, as their successors in office regularly confirm. It will always be captivated by its screen stars, though hopefully will not elevate them to the status of entire planetary systems rivaling the discoveries of Galileo. But from the boardroom betrayals of Enron and Hollinger and the epidemic of greed illustrated by out-of-control CEO pay to the quagmire of Iraq and the primacy of the privileged which has given rise to the greatest income gap since the 1920s, it is a world that is too often let down and disappointed by those whom it has entrusted and revered. We have discussed this phenomenon before in the context of the vanishing stakeholder. It is a reality that will increasingly see society turn to what I call its quiet heroes —the everyday leaders around us who are changing the world for the better in the voluntary organizations they run, the causes they support and the social needs they fill. Perhaps astonishingly to some, they are doing it without scandal, award ceremonies, private jets or gas-guzzling limousines.
If conventional leaders and cause-oriented celebrity icons are genuine in their aspirations and are looking for a model to work and live by that gets the job done well, they could do worse than follow the example set by their more unassuming counterparts.