The great thing about the life of Senator John McCain is that the mistakes are on the record and there’s quite a list: nearly bottom of his class at Annapolis naval academy and generous with his sexual favours, he took every flying risk as a pilot. I bet this wildness stood him in good stead when he was imprisoned during the US war in South East Asia and over time, beaten into submission. (On the record: “every man has a breaking point”… Forget superheroes). He chose Sara Palin as a running mate, he was criticised for taking funds for his campaign inappropriately … and he stood up, said he was wrong, laughed when he was right and, in the words of Marlene Dietrich’s character in Touch of Evil, not only Americans thought he was “some kind of a man”.
The terrible thing about public life is how short it can sell you, whether you are buying or selling. You just don’t know who is nice and who is nasty, who tries and fails, who would never dream of trying. Public figures get caught up in what you want people to know and the context in which you wish them to know it. The press and modern media take pleasure in finding you out and if they can’t, they make it up. Fake news isn’t news. When it’s a slow day you look for a story to inflate and if you can’t find one, you make one up. Joan Collins told the story of being at Cannes and meeting the press corps, grouped sagging round the bar. “Joanie, it’s such a boring beano this year, you won’t mind if we use you to jolly things up ?” Whether she said yes or no, they made up a story about her throwing wine at somebody important and she said it simply wasn’t true.
I suppose the benign aspect of this is public relations but public relations ceases to be benign when there are interests at stake. Have you noticed that since formerly Trump lawyer Michael Cohen answered the wakeup call and realised that his wife, his children and his country were more important than the platinum jack rabbit currently residing in Pennsylvania Avenue, he’s dropped 20 lbs and looks like a much happier man? The physical impact of lying for a living should never be under estimated.
There are things we all want to remain private but in public life – unless you are in the top most echelon – they come out sooner or later – and even there …. Reputations are made and broken on what can be reshaped into something more palatable and which myths can be sold. (See the Kennedys or the Windsors).
There are several flashpoints in most public lives where you lie and are found out: or you tell a truth which is not liked and by extension, neither are you: or you evade and it changes how you are seen. Better by far to accept that there is no “off the record”. Public life is on the record. Better to say your piece and get on with the work than to try to wriggle away by sidestepping. Interestingly it often plays by opposites. Do you think half the people who have paid tribute to McCain would have done so if he had not admitted his mistakes ?
The job and the life are not the same thing: the life is part of the job.
I once watched the former Liberal leader Paddy Ashdown walk in to a press conference in a lesson in confrontation. “ Good morning” he said. “You’d like to know if I had an affair ? Yes. Does my wife know ? Yes. Is it over ? Yes.” And a few more points dealt with just as crisply until he said he was very busy, he expected they were too and left. His popularity was never higher.
This is a perfect example about how what comes over as confidence makes a public person deeply attractive. Attractive doesn’t just mean good looking, though that helps. As watchers we feel that the features so enhanced embody the morality within. And we are short of it right now.