“Were things really better 40 or 50 years ago,” my daughter asked recently, “or does it just seem that way?” “Better how, darling? They sure weren’t better for black people in the South or, I don’t know, for kids with dyslexia who got labeled stupid.”
But of course, as a modern American child fully versed in the rich lore of victimhood, she knew all that. “I mean, were people really less selfish than they are now? Couples especially.”
In brief, she was asking as a 17-year-old romantic — someone thinking hard about her own future as a wife and mother — growing up during the Clinton presidency in the age of celebrity worship. She was asking about adultery.
As we kicked the subject around, the answer was as simple as it was complicated-sounding: no and yes. No, as the celebs so eagerly assert, people were not innately better; people are flawed, being human’s a helluva tough job. But, yes, back then more people behaved better, both because the culture expected them to and because they expected it of themselves; which is to say, when they didn’t, they at least knew enough to be ashamed. No one pretended dumping on your loved ones was anything but wrong — to do so marked you as an s.o.b. or, at best, a jerk.
Thus it was that movie studios back then counted on their publicity departments for their very survival. Sure, Eddie and Debbie were a bust from hour one, Joan Crawford was the mother from hell by way of Bloomingdale’s and Burt Lancaster’s sexual appetites only worsened his second wife’s drinking problem; but as far as the public was concerned, all had family lives out of Norman Rockwell.
Today this is known as hypocrisy — but it was hypocrisy in the service of a greater good. Today’s publicists are more likely to meet a rumor of a star busting up his family with a bland statement acknowledging that, yes, he had a thing with his costar on location, but he and his wife plan to remain friends for the sake of the kids.
All of which inevitably has an impact on the rest of us.
In fact, even as traditionalists decry the flight from responsibility of so many of the public figures who might once have been embraced as role models, what they project attracts us still. Who doesn’t at least sometimes envy their sheer, unembarrassed freedom from restraint? It?s not as if such behavior is wholly without appeal, especially — and this part I did not tell my daughter — for guys. If there were no such things as guilt, or consequences, or higher morality, lots more of us would act this way.
Then, again, that’s what separates the men from the boys, what makes them better husbands, better fathers, better human beings — what in many places is still known as character. Lusting in our hearts is one thing. The trick is making sure it stays there.
In order to resist temptation, one of my best friends, happily married but always equally happy to reminisce about his premarriage exploits in the seventies, makes a point of hiring only elderly and/or strikingly unattractive women to staff his small office. I, mean-while, will try almost anything for a legal turn-on. For weeks after reading Bob Evans? book, I begged my wife to repeat the line with a playful malevolence that has nothing to do with her real personality: “Don’t ever leave me alone, Stein, I’m a hot lady.”
Alas, she wouldn’t do it, the same way she almost never puts on that black negligee when I want her to.
Once in a while, it can seem like a rotten bargain. But in the end lots of us stick to it for basically selfish reasons: because it works. Because we love our spouses and don’t want to cause them pain. Because the well-being of our kids is immeasurably more meaningful than indulging ourselves. Because somewhere along the way we’ve learned that having values and sticking to them is the formula for an infinitely more fulfilling life.
The acute narcissism that allows 50-year-olds to behave like they’re 18, without a full understanding of consequences or even the merest traces of remorse, is also often the drive behind extraordinary success — and nowhere more than in glamour fields like show biz and politics.
But, in the ways that count, such an approach to life invariably winds up the worst kind of dead end.
That can sometimes seem hard to believe in our celebrity culture. I myself became convinced only through personal experience a while back when I got the notion for a series of pieces called “The Wisdom of Our Elders.” The idea was to pick the brains of various celebrated figures — politicians, journalists, show biz types — each at least 75 years old, who appeared to have led full and rich lives, and provide them with a forum in which to pass on their insights on the Big Questions: What is truly valuable in life? How does one avoid the most painful mistakes? What constitutes real success?
I ended up speaking to maybe a dozen such people, and it truly was an eye-opener — because most were amazingly unthoughtful.
It took me a while to see this was more than just coincidence and to discern the pattern: that having spent their entire lives chasing success (and some-times playing by pretty flexible rules to get it), most were entirely lacking introspection. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say they had achieved so much largely because they’d been unhampered by what the mother of a friend calls “the curse of self-knowledge.”
Visiting the law office of gentlemanly former Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright — renowned in his day as one of the most astute foreign policy minds going, mentor to the young Bill Clinton — I found a tart-tongued old man still unaccountably nursing grudges with adversaries almost no one else even remembered. A few weeks later I spent a morning on a sun-drenched Hollywood Hills patio with the legendary film producer Hal Roach, nearly a hundred years old at the time but still fully lucid, listening to his experiences with Will Rogers, Laurel and Hardy, and the Our Gang kids. He said some fascinating things, yet trying to get him to draw any sort of larger lesson from it all proved useless. Totally defined by his work, he told me he didn’t think about it, he just did it.
And so it was with most of the others. Left unnamed because they are still among us.
Finally, reluctantly, I abandoned the project. I’d been poking around celebrity culture nearly six months, but there just didn’t seem to be enough genuine wisdom to fill a book.
In September, Harry Stein spoke to the IWF at the National Press Club about his new book How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (And Found Inner Peace) 2000 by Harry Stein. Used by permission of Dell Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc.