by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
Marilyn Monroe holds a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln. (photo: Milton Greene, via Michael Donovan/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
This spring I'm finally reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's masterful work, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It's been instructive to read her historical account in the midst of this season of political folly — from Newt Gingrich's rapid freefall to Rep. Weiner's embarrassing Twitter pics to John Edwards' alleged criminal cover-up. But of course when is politics not a display of the follies of men? And I mean “men” here: rare is the female politician caught with her pants down, lawyering up to combat sleaze or scandal.
Published in 2006, Goodwin's book chronicles the lives of Lincoln and three of his famed political adversaries — accomplished men who later became trusted members of his cabinet and fiercely loyal friends. (The film rights were secured by Steven Spielberg years before the book was finished; Daniel Day-Lewis plays the title role next year).
In America's popular and poorly exercised historical imagination, Abraham Lincoln is mostly a cardboard caricature, but in Goodwin's narrative he emerges as a compelling, complex figure. Not really a surprise, I know, but the person and his politics — Lincoln's private ambition and public comportment, his personal burdens and professional brilliance — are irresistibly rendered.
So it's never helpful (or truthful) to characterize earlier eras like Lincoln's as more respectable or dignified than our own, top hats and high collars notwithstanding. The historical record is clear that politics has always been cutthroat and politicians have always been capable of the worst of human behavior. Nor should we assume that Victorian prudishness about sex curtailed the exploitation of women as disposable objects for the amusement of powerful men. Prostitution abounded in Lincoln's America.
But there is something about the inherent contradictions regarding sex in our own age that seems to contribute to a perpetually adolescent outlook on human relationships. Americans are famously puritanical in our views about sex yet perversely voyeuristic about the sex lives of the famous.
We complain when CNN spends hours of air-time covering Anthony Wiener's underpants problem, but seasoned media researchers know that such stories are the bread-and-butter of higher ratings and revenues. We gripe, but we can't turn away.
There is also the correlation between the cultivation of celebrity and a lack of intellectual rigor, which makes sex (or at least sexiness) a preoccupation in American politics. Candidates for public office rarely speak in anything but clichés and soundbites; carefully controlled image is everything.
The three- to four-hour political speeches of Lincoln's day — dense with ideas and historical and literary references — are unfathomable in our own. In a fast-paced visual culture, we want airbrushed good looks not lengthy, complex oratory. Before you know it, people like John Edwards think their sexual attractiveness makes them invincible.
In the end, though, the downfall of men like Wiener and Edwards — whether short-lived or for the long haul — may be less about sexual preoccupations (theirs and ours) and more about small lives (also theirs and ours). One of the ironies of our increasingly globalized world is that we are more solipsistic than ever, living our lives through the mediation of smaller and smaller screens, surrounded by people but starving for real human connection.
In 19th-century prairie towns like Springfield, Illinois where the isolation was real, it was somehow possible to “live large,” to practice the virtue of magnanimity: a generosity of spirit and intellect that is the opposite of our modern smallness, that seeks contentment not in self-gratification or the attainment of celebrity but in giving oneself fully to a transcendent purpose. Not that Lincoln and some of his rival-friends, especially, weren't bundles of neuroses, capable, at times, of self-serving pettiness — but at least they exhibited, when it mattered most, something of genuine human selflessness in service to the greater good.
In our time, unfortunately, the self is most often the greater good. And politicians whose very survival as politicians — getting elected or staying elected — consumes their every waking moment, seem inexplicably tempted toward small, selfish, secret acts of betrayal and self-sabotage. Acts that are intended to prop up the insecure ego but which ultimately humiliate and destroy, laying low not just the powerful men themselves but the women and children, family and friends, who love them.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
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