It is not odd to lament the death of a man whom we would by no means wish to be still alive.
This Montaigne quote puts me in mind of the first President I remember as a child, Richard Nixon. I have no positive boyhood memories of his Presidency. It’s hard to figure out precisely where childhood opinions are formed – in part they no doubt came from my parents, although my family wasn’t particularly political. I remember having some discussions with friends about him, but it seems like I was the most anti-Nixon advocate in those discussions.
The nearest I can come to a concrete answer is a hazy memory of a political cartoon from the fall of 1972. In the cartoon, Nixon is throwing a rock at a bird. I’m not sure what the rock was supposed to symbolize, nor who the bird was supposed to represent, but that image might have been the single most important political message I ever received, because it made me feel like Richard Nixon was a bad, malicious guy.
Soon afterwards, I voiced support for “McGovernor” for President, even though I knew nothing about it. My dad laughed at that pronouncement, saying I might be his only supporter in the whole country. I doubt seriously that my parents voted in 1972.
After his election, I became a major consumer of Watergate news. The movie “The Ice Storm” paints a very realistic vision of Watergate saturation in America in 1973 and 1974. Watergate coverage pushed afternoon cartoons off the air. You couldn’t listen to the radio for long before hearing something about new revelations during news updates. Kids knew about it and talked about it … and everyone had their own “I’m not a crook” imitation.
It all culminated about a month before my ninth birthday. I remember who excited I was when I first heard the rumor that Nixon was about to resign – I ran over to my best friend Todd Argenziano’s house and was a bit surprised that he didn’t share my enthusiasm. My parents had some friend over the night of Nixon’s resignation speech, so I had to go into their bedroom to watch the speech, alone.
Reading the text of the speech now, I’m surprised at its length, because I know that I sat through every word of it. And I know that the early words, the self pitying ones, had no effect on me. I just wondered when he’d finally get to the point. But I do remember, precisely, where the speech got to me. A few paragraphs after announcing that Vice President Ford would be assuming office, President Nixon said:
I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my Judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.
And with those words, Nixon didn’t seem like the mean guy throwing a rock at a bird anymore. He seemed like any kid who got in trouble for something and couldn’t do anything to take it back. He seemed like everyman.
At this point, my mother entered the bedroom and noticed me crying. She asked why, and I responded “because we’re never going to see him again.” She laughed, then told my father and their friends and they laughed some more. That reaction only strengthened my bond with the fallen leader. We were being mocked together.
That empathy for Nixon didn’t last long. By the next day, he was back to insane, rambling press conferences and the media was back to recalling in deadening detail all of his public sins. But those feelings have stuck with me for a lifetime. While many Americans have deep antipathy for public servants, I can’t help but feel some compassion for them, especially in their most difficult hours. Don’t we all, at some level, feel judged by life and considered unworthy? How many of us could withstand the public humiliations of Nixon, Hart or Spitzer?
But, like everyone else, I too in the end reject these fallen leaders, by reason if not by emotion. Montaigne made a very astute observation about the mixed feelings involved in such a judgment:
The sun, they say, does not shed its light in one continuous flow but ceaselessly darts fresh rays so thickly at us, one after another, that we cannot perceive any gap between them. So, too, our soul darts its arrows separately but imperceptibly …. Our mind contemplates the matter in a different light and sees it from another aspect: for everything has many angles and many different sheens.
It’s important to see and to feel those different perspectives, to withhold judgment of human flaws. But in the end, it’s really about what we perceive in life and how well we can put ourselves into such a predicament. The feeling, Montaigne asserts, is similar to pangs at the end of visiting friends or family. Maybe it’s all about mortality and the knowledge of inevitable, permanent loss:
Not only children, who artlessly follow Nature, often weep and laugh at the same thing, but that not one of us either can boast that, no matter how much he may want to set out on a journey, he still does not feel his heart a-tremble when he says goodbye to family and friends: even if he does not actually burst into tears at least he puts a foot over to stirrup with a sad and gloomy face.