Do As I Say, Not As I Do

One of the more harrowing moments in the movie version of "Angels in America" comes when an ill Roy Cohn is disputing his doctor's diagnosis. Cohn was a right-wing Republican wheeler-dealer, former Joe McCarthy henchman and, in Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, so damned for his part in the anti-communist excesses of half a century ago that he is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. He was also a closeted gay man who died of AIDS.

But when his doctor tells him that's what's making him sick, he refutes him with a soliloquy about the nature of influence. AIDS, he says, is an illness of homosexuals, and homosexuals are powerless. He, on the other hand, can get the president on the phone whenever he wants. Ipso facto, he does not have AIDS. With a maniacal glint in his eyes he concludes, "I have liver cancer!"

Shading or trading the true facts of your life in exchange for power and influence is a recurring leitmotif in the relentless self-invention of America. It even has its own literary adjective: Gatsbyesque. The result is a peculiar sort of lie, the square peg of human behavior forced into the round hole of public persona.

Thus this year alone we had William Bennett, whose best sellers on virtue had established him as the nation's morals czar, unmasked as a guy with a bad gambling jones. Rush Limbaugh said the football player Donovan McNabb was getting a free pass from the mainstream media because they liked the idea of a black quarterback, then took a free pass himself from the conservative media because they liked the idea of a conservative commentator, even one who, improbably, turned out to have an illegal OxyContin habit.

But the deception at the heart of the long, long life of the late Strom Thurmond trumped all in the "do as I say, not as I do" department. The man who ran for president as an ardent segregationist was unmasked as the father of a black woman, the out-of-wedlock daughter of his family's 16-year-old maid. It sounded like the plot of a Douglas Sirk movie, except that it happened to be true.

Massaging the facts of your life to fit your public positions, rather than the other way around, is a bad, sad deal. The Thurmond story alone represents a monumental wasted opportunity, personally and politically. The senator liked to portray himself as a changed man in his later years, no longer the racist firebrand who left the Democratic Party after trying to block a civil-rights plank in its platform.

In light of his transformation, and that of the entire nation, he surely could have openly acknowledged the woman who was his eldest daughter instead of keeping her a vague rumor in the body politic. But he did not choose to do so, not even to his other children, and she kept his secret until after he had died. Born to an unmarried teenage domestic, Essie Mae Washington-Williams was an honor student who became a teacher, married a lawyer and created a thriving middle-class family of her own; her life refuted every stereotype about a black underclass, stereotypes men like Thurmond once helped promote. She knew the senator was her father; he helped support her and pay for her education. But he never found it in his heart to say publicly: Here she is. Look at her. I am so proud. I was so wrong.

The privacy of public men can be measured by a kind of algebra of exposure: the prominence of their position multiplied by the variance between their espoused beliefs and actual behavior, what might be called the hypocrisy quotient. Too often the sum of all this is a product that lacks all authenticity, leading us to believe that no one is what he seems.

This was true of Bennett and Limbaugh, who couldn't manage the behavior their rhetoric seemed to require of others. Bennett's fall was a chance to talk publicly about the pitfalls of gambling. Rush, we were assured by his supporters, would not go all touchy-feely after rehab. But why not? Here were two guys with money, power, influence--and serious addiction. Instead of shutting down when it turned out they weren't two-dimensional man-gods, they would have best served the public by opening up. Maybe best served themselves as well. That round hole is a tight, tight fit. If there's an elephant in the living room of your life, to use the metaphor of substance abuse, you can find yourself tied into knots, until, like Bill Clinton, you wind up in your own Beckett play, asking what the meaning of "is" is.

For years Strom Thurmond walked around with an enormous contradiction within him, an avowed opponent of equality for black Americans, the backdoor father of a black woman. Maybe he forgot, and Bennett forgot, and Limbaugh forgot, and Roy Cohn, too, that real power is the power to live openly and to allow others to do the same. Maybe the gay people despised so thoroughly by Cohn have taught an invaluable lesson through the struggle described in "Angels"--that the closet is a prison, whether it means denying your sexuality, your problems or your kin. In the curtain speech the central character says of his brothers, "We won't die secret deaths anymore." Secret lives can be just as pernicious.