Feet of Clay
Why do we expect our heroes to be epitomes of all-round perfection?
Doing my usual trawl of news sites recently, I came upon an interview with Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter, Dr Makaziwe, popularly known as Maki, the child of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase (whom he left for Winnie Mandela).
A child when her father was sent to prison, she was grown up with kids of her own by the time he was released. But all her hopes of establishing a close father-daughter relationship with him were soon belied. She says now that while Mandela may be a warm, extroverted presence for the entire world, with his own family he seems incapable of expressing his love, always remaining a distant, emotionally unavailable figure.
As I read through the long interview – in which Maki is at pains to point out that she no longer holds his emotional coldness against her father; that’s just the way he is and she has made her peace with it – I couldn’t help but be reminded of all the other larger-than-life political figures who seemed to have failed those closest to them.
The most famous example of this phenomenon – in which an iconic leader wins over the world but fails to gain the affection of his own immediate family – is, of course, Mahatma Gandhi. Those of you who remember the controversy over the film, Gandhi, My Father, will recall the salient facts. The Mahatma had a strained relationship with his first-born, Harilal Gandhi, who became a drunk, converted to Islam in an apparent attempt to provoke his father, then reconverted to Hinduism before dying a penniless alcoholic.
He said famously of the man who was referred to as the Father of the Nation: “He is the greatest father you have…but he is the one father I wish I did not have.”
Ironic, isn’t it? That Gandhiji, the man who was affectionately called Bapu by the entire country, failed his own son so spectacularly? That Mandela, the man who is held up as a symbol of hope and reconciliation in the entire world, couldn’t emotionally connect with his own daughter?
But while it may be jarring to discover that our idols have feet of clay, perhaps we really shouldn’t be that surprised. So, our heroes also have dysfunctional families just like the rest of us. Of course, they do. We may have built them up as larger-than-life mythological figures on our imagination. But at the end of the day, they are only human, made of the same flesh and blood as you and me. Just as we struggle with the various facets of our personality, so do they. And yes, just like us, sometimes they fail at one thing or the other.
Some of them may turn out to be spectacular failures as fathers. Others may be revealed as terrible sons. Some may fail at being faithful husbands. Others may fall well short of our modern standards of political correctness.
But for all their faults, there is still something about them that marks them out as leaders of men. They may be bad at the small stuff, but by God, they know how to deal with the big picture.
Take Winston Churchill, for example. If he were alive and in British politics today, he would be exposed for the racist bigot that he was. His view on Indians – whom he derided as “breeding like rabbits” – was that they were a “beastly people with a beastly religion”. He damned Hindus as a foul race “protected by their mere pullulation from the doom that is their due”. He hoped for “bitter and bloody communal violence” in India so that the Raj could last longer. And yet, despite these racist views that were expressed all too often privately, who can deny that Churchill’s leadership was pivotal in defeating Hitler in World War II?
If the media had been as intrusive at the time that John F. Kennedy was President of the United States, Camelot would not be the one thing that JKF is famous for today. Instead, he would have been seen a Clinton-esque figure best-known for his serial adultery and the fact that he had sex in the White House pool with a succession of women. Several years later, Bill Clinton went one further by having sex in the Oval Office itself. But unlike Clinton – whose entire Presidency became a late-night show gag after the Monica Lewinsky episode – JFK got away with it, until more recent biographies unearthed all the dirt about what would today be termed his ‘sex addiction’.
And more’s the pity, if you ask me. Think about it. Do we really need this kind of intensely personal, sometimes distressingly private information about our leaders? Do we really need to know if they are cheating on their wives? Or that their sons and daughters are disappointed in them? Quite honestly, what purpose does this serve?
At the end of the day, we have to judge our public figures by their public lives and their achievements in this arena. And if we want to do that, then their private lives should remain just that: private.