Thursday, March 20, 2008

"If you want a title, what's wrong with Mr.?''

The speaker was British actor Paul Scofield, who died today. He posed the question in response to queries as to why he didn't want to be knighted, gaining the privilege of being called, "Sir."

In spite of being in a very public profession, Scofield felt no need to be a public personality, a celebrity.

Scofield's decision for ordinariness, in spite of his extraordinary talent, is a bit damning, however unintentionally, of those marginally talented celebrities with which the tabloids become so obsessed these days. It also damns those more talented persons who, once their sizzling fame has abated, can't be content with simply continuing to do work, instead spending millions to tell us that they're still around and still talented.

Scofield's stance reminds us that there is a difference between success, on the one hand, and prominence, on the other. Scofield was a successful actor who received an Academy Award for his incredible performance as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. Yet he never became a celebrity.

His example might well be heeded beyond the field of entertainment. Politics, for example. Gore Vidal, a curmdudgeon whose inventive, if destructive, violations of historical fact have sometimes angered me, is often cited as having said, "Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so."

Vidal's point, of course, is that if anyone has that peculiar combination of megalomania and gnawing insecurity necessary to say, "I want to be President," they probably aren't well-suited for the office.

I'm inclined to agree. And these months of watching the 2008 nominating races, in processes that combine elements of a new car show and WWF bouts, complete with the inauthenticity of both, have heightened my inclination to agree even more.

Of course, the Christian world view to which I subscribe is nothing if not realistic. Christian anthropology derived from the Bible is unflinchingly honest about human beings. Nobody is perfect and it would be silly to expect perfection in our political leaders.

But what's bothersome is that, in their desire--their need?--for prominence, pols will often portray themselves as something like perfect and their opponents as something considerably less.

I only hope that the desire for titles, vindication, and power isn't so great as to cloud the judgment of the chief remaining candidates. I hope that they don't believe the nearly-messianic ways in which they portray themselves and their candidacies.

On the day before he announced his candidacy for president in the 1988 race, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis visited a prominent presidential historian over lunch. The historian had known every US president from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. What, Dukakis asked him just before leaving, did all those presidents have in common? The historian thought for a moment, then said, "They were all very strange."

It may be a bit more than we have a right to hope for that our next president won't be strange, driven by the desire for titles, accolades, and Air Force One, nor inflated by a weirdly outsized sense of self-importance. But if those characteristics can be mitigated by a smidgen of both humility and an appreciation of their inherent worthiness as human beings apart from accomplishments or honors, that may be okay.

I might also suggest that they spend some time studying Paul Scofield's approach to his work and to the alluring demon of prominence.

[Scofield's statement, by the way, is the perfect quote for this Maundy Thursday, commemorating the day when Jesus, God-in-the-flesh who came not to be served, but to serve, washed the feet of His disciples.]

[You might be interested in these ruminations on the effects of fame on the famous here and, in its original incarnation, here. And here and here I look at David Bowie and Pope John Paul II, I consider prominence and its uses]its uses]

[I promise that this will be last Paul Scofield-related post of the day.]

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