What is the difference between emulation and veneration, and why does our grasp of that difference seem to slip whenever it’s convenient?
It’s impossible to memorialize a hero anymore without some town crier gesticulating wildly at the hero’s unheroic attributes: “Martin Luther King Jr. had mistresses! Marilyn Monroe popped pills! Babe Ruth ate too many hot dogs!”
We, as the public, are of a very average standard, and we know that we are average. We give bad drivers the middle finger. Maybe we are bad drivers. We yell at waiters for leaving the tomatoes in our salad when we expressly asked for them not to be there. We see each other having affairs, cheating on taxes or even leaving the shopping cart in the middle of the parking stall, and we might grumble, but that is somehow OK — even expected.
But, for some reason, we hold public figures to ridiculously high standards. Our children are watching them, we say smugly, and they should be more responsible. As if our children weren’t watching us even more closely.
A video might leak of a star with sticky fingers, slipping makeup into her purse. Boo! Hiss! I knew she would do something like that.
A senator gets wrapped up in an extramarital affair, or gets caught sending shirtless pictures to interns, or something equally embarrassing. Stone him! How can people like this (or, more notably, people like us) be leading this country? We can’t allow regular people to be regular when they’re wearing an American flag pin!
President Bill Clinton took the country on a roller-coaster ride when it was revealed that he and White House intern Monica Lewinsky (one of us) had engaged in some behind-closed-doors activities. Now, when you hear the name “Bill Clinton,” that’s the first thing you think of.
But Clinton was a good president. He presided over the longest peacetime economic expansion in the country’s history. He did much to rework the welfare system. He has since become an influential reformer and philanthropist, working to prevent AIDS and helping out in Haiti. Most notably, Clinton was one of few presidents who was generally well liked on both sides of the political aisle, in both the North and the South, the coasts and the Bible Belt.
Yes, Clinton engaged in some morally reprehensible behavior. But does that make his presidency any less impactful?
Another example: Winston Churchill was the bulldog of England, leading the country as prime minister through two different periods of intense struggle. His wisdom, wit and work ethic earned him a Nobel Prize in literature, and his refusal to accept defeat inspired an island of beleaguered and bombed citizens. In a 2002 poll, he was voted the greatest Briton of all time.
He was also an alcoholic. And not just a social drinker. Many historical records make famous Churchill’s penchant for maintaining a solid 24-hour state of tipsiness.
But so what? Does his consumption of alcohol somehow negate everything he did as prime minister?
It is the responsibility of the public figure to live up to the high standards we give them. This is a responsibility they accept — perhaps involuntarily — when they are put in that public position. It is thus our responsibility, as the great and swollen field of average citizens, to know the difference between veneration and emulation.