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Power And Imperfection: Setting Standards For Our Leaders And Ourselves

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” (Include the necessary, regional Arkansas inflections for full effect.)

C’mon, even non-history buffs should know this one—it’s a classic. Washington, D.C., 1998: former President Bill Clinton, in the White House, with the 22-year-old intern. Shocking the American public from sea to sea as the nation collectively wiped the sweat from its shiny brow, the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal sparked a political uproar and ultimately led to the impeachment—and later senatorial acquittal—of the 42nd President of the United States by the House of Representatives. But Clinton’s affair is by no means singular: historical progression has accompanied a myriad of similar blemishes, effective falls from grace for prominent figures and their respective causes.

Please see Lance Armstrong, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Tiger Woods. Any of these ring a bell?

Throughout history, it seems as though many political, professional, or otherwise societal leaders who have accomplished incredible, diverse, and unprecedented feats are tainted, in a way, by their sometimes-overlooked missteps, blatant blunders, or multifarious foibles—tragic flaws, if you will. Perhaps more significant in their far-reaching achievements (and detriments) than the aforementioned popular figures (apologies to the former Governator), the likes of Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Sanger, and even Martin Luther King, Jr. typify this idea.

Take Columbus, for example. Besides his obvious, erroneous presumption that this “New World,” which was quite old to those who had inhabited it for centuries, was India—and the natives thereby “Indians”—good old Chris and his crew wreaked hellish havoc across the island of Hispaniola. After setting sail in 1492, he led the widespread raping, pillaging, and slaughtering of many native villages, and yet somehow still earned himself a national holiday during the best month of the year due to his “discovery” of the Americas, which subsequently spurred further European exploration.

Another man famous for his contributions to American history, Thomas Jefferson, principal author of The Declaration of Independence (which asserts that all men created equal, endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) and third president of the United States openly opposed slavery, yet owned hundreds of slaves—and probably fathered children with at least one of them.

Despite his hugely significant hand in and leadership throughout the Civil Rights Movement and religious influence, Martin Luther King, Jr. engaged in several extramarital affairs.

Disregarding personal stances on abortion, Margaret Sanger made huge strides in the campaign for women’s health in the 1920s, founding organizations that would later evolve into Planned Parenthood and lobbying for the legalization of birth control in the United States. But then there’s this tiny, little side note about why she advocated so heavily for safe reproductive rights: Sanger was a firm proponent of negative eugenics, asserting that birth control and abortion could assist in the elimination of the “unfit” by reducing reproduction and thereby improving hereditary traits. Yikes.

Even George Washington, father of our country, had only one real tooth by the time of his presidency—and I mean, if that’s not a fatal flaw, I dunno what is.

More recently, the likes of the beloved Bill Cosby and renowned Brian Williams reentered the limelight—but not for an airing of The Cosby Show or to appear as anchor on NBC Nightly News. Although he has been accused of sexual assault recurrently since 2000, Cosby in late 2014 and early 2015 again garnered bad press when many women came forward alleging that Cosby had drugged, assaulted, and/or raped them between 1965 and 2004, adding to the now at least 38 accusations against him (the most recent alleged incident having occurred in 2008). In February of 2015, Brian Williams was suspended from NBC for six months without pay for misrepresenting events of the Iraq War in 2003, including a military helicopter story aired on March 26, 2003 and 11 other incidents of embellished or erroneous reporting.

While a ready-made analysis of this points to John Dalberg-Acton’s observation that power—or fame, talent, etc.—corrupts, I think, in some ways, it’s even simpler than this. I am by no means justifying any of the aforementioned transgressions—and certainly am not attempting outright to quote Miley Cyrus, sorry, Hannah Montana—the truth remains that no one is perfect, and that most of us are far from it. Obviously, this fact is made particularly clear when scandals like those that I have mentioned are broadcasted internationally, but often, at Boston College especially, the misconception of perfection as an achievable goal can be incredibly oppressive. Scaled down enormously, the aforesaid faults manifest the fact that perfection in any form, however near it may seem, is an unattainable aspiration, and perhaps if people recognized this, they wouldn’t commit as many indecencies and atrocities as means to this unreachable end.

Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Graphic

April 26, 2015