I was thinking today about how so few public figures are willing to admit (for attribution, anyway) that they’ve done something wrong, no matter how minor. But I wasn’t thinking of politicians, or even of Dan Rather. A half-remembered quote had flashed unexpectedly through my mind, and thirty seconds’ worth of Web surfing produced this paragraph from an editorial in a magazine called World War II:
Soon after he had completed his epic 140-mile march with his staff from Wuntho, Burma, to safety in India, an unhappy Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell was asked by a reporter to explain the performance of Allied armies in Burma and give his impressions of the recently concluded campaign. Never one to mince words, the peppery general responded: “I claim we took a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, and go back and retake it.”
Stilwell spoke those words sixty-two years ago. When was the last time that such candor was heard in like circumstances? What would happen today if similar words were spoken by some equally well-known person who’d stepped in it up to his eyebrows? Would his candor be greeted by a wholehearted roar of astonished approval? Or would he be buried under the inevitable avalanche of told-you-sos from his sworn enemies and their robotic surrogates, amplified well beyond the threshold of pain by the 24/7 echo chamber of the media, old and new alike? Is it possible that the hair-trigger litigiousness of modern-day American society, in which admissions of error are treated as a license to sue, stands in the way of such confessions? And even if our hypothetical Joe Stilwell II took a savage beating in the press for a day or two–or longer–might it be possible that in the long run he’d come out on top, simply because he was honest?
I doubt we’ll be getting a real-life opportunity to see what would happen any time soon. But having recently watched Paddy Chayefsky’s Network for the first time, it occurs to me that such a scenario might well make for an interesting movie. In Network, the American public is so hungry for the spin-free frankness of a seemingly honest man that it embraces a TV anchorman who goes off his rocker in the middle of a newscast. (That’s what makes the film so provocative, by the way. In the hands of a West Wing-type screenwriter, the anchorman would have been presented as a Christ-like figure, but Chayefsky leaves us in no possible doubt that Howard Beale really is off his rocker.) Imagine, then, a film about a present-day public figure who screws up in a big way, calls a press conference, admits his errors, and throws himself upon the mercy of the public. It’s not hard to see how a socially aware writer-director like, say, John Sayles might weave the resulting tangle into a smart story about imperfect people who get caught up in the whirlwind of circumstance.
If anyone out there in cyberspace likes this idea, talk to my agent. In the meantime, I guess we’ll have to settle for the freeze-dried, pre-digested, focus-group-tested spin that has come to dominate so much of our public discourse in my lifetime. It makes me sick–but it seems to work. I don’t like to think what that says about us.