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Henningsen: Second Acts

04/28/10 5:55PM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST)  Americans are fans of comebacks but teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen thinks things may have gotten a little out of hand recently.

(HENNINGSEN)  "There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed.   You got your one shot and if you blew it, you were done. This was particularly true of people caught up in scandal. Misuse the powers of office, steal from the company till, misbehave sexually, and you were permanently disgraced.

That may have been true when Fitzgerald wrote, in 1940, but it seems almost quaint today. Now it's all about the second act - and how quickly you can start it. Tiger Woods returned to the Masters barely five months after revelations of serial affairs destroyed his marriage and threatened to end a legendary career. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned the governorship of New York after admitting relations with a prostitute, spent less than a year out of the public eye before re-creating himself as a journalist and a lecturer on, of all things, ethics at Harvard.  Most bankers responsible for our financial crisis never even bothered to leave before continuing their irresponsible behavior.

Americans seem to have developed a tradition of "forgive and forget", of quickly mellowing our anger and diminishing our rage at public figures' misbehavior and betrayal of trust.

Have we lost our capacity for moral outrage?  Are we defenseless against the raging egos of those who will do anything to regain their former prominence? Or are we so jaded by events that we simply sigh and accept that once-career-ending behavior is now worthy of only a brief "time out"?
    
One wonders, too, about the characters of the Woods's, the Spitzers, and those bankers.  Arrogance seems second nature; humility an alien concept; a capacity for shame so much excess baggage.

It wasn't always that way.  I'm reminded of Britain's "Profumo Affair", which provides an interesting counterpoint to today's Teflon scandals.  John Profumo was the up-and-coming Minister of War in Harold MacMillan's Conservative government when, in 1963, he became sexually involved with Christine Keeler, a prostitute who was sharing her favors with a naval attaché at the Soviet embassy.  Profumo lied to Parliament about the relationship and resigned when the truth came out.  The scandal destroyed the MacMillan government and permanently damaged public trust.

Today Profumo would be advised to make a display of public contrition, lie low, perhaps go into rehab for a while, and then gradually return to public life.  A sympathetic interview here, a careful appearance there, perhaps the odd op-ed piece and, before you know it, you're back.
   
Profumo did none of these things, devoting himself to charitable work in the London slums. For forty-three years he washed dishes, helped drunks, and tended to the homeless until his death in 2006, at 91.
   
Profumo's decision to labor as an anonymous social worker reminds us that what separates him from the Spitzers of the world is not time, or geography, or even culture.  It's character. Some people still believe in things like humility, remorse, and earning redemption.
   
But, apparently, not many.
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