I started this letter back when David Garrow’s biography of Martin Luther King appeared, with its revelations about Dr. King’s sexual habits, just in time for Christmas 1986. I put it aside because I wasn’t happy with it. In the summer of 1987, the Hart and Bakker scandals made me dust it off and try again. I still didn’t like it. Spring of 1988, and Jimmy Swaggart prompted me to have still another try, also unsatisfactory. Now in 1989 we’ve already heard about John Tower’s “gamy” behavior (Time‘s adjective) and about the love life of the prime minister of Australia. It’s time to try again, and this time, for better or worse, I’m going to plow through to some sort of conclusion.
Ponder this story. At a dinner party held by a foreign head of state to honor a visiting American politician, the guest of honor “fumbled Mrs. A., kissed the shrieking Miss B., pinched the plump behind of Mrs. C. black and blue, and ran at Miss D. with intent to ravish her.” After reportedly behaving like a “must elephant,” our countryman was carried by six sailors “by main force” back to his ship, where his wife awaited him in the public saloon cabin. Then—but let his host tell it:
This remarkable man satiated there and then his baffled lust on the unresisting body of his legitimate spouse and copiously vomited during the operation. If you have seen Mrs.—you will not think this incredible.
OK, who is this great American? Lots of possibilities, aren’t there? This particular lecher, however, was none other than our former President and my fellow Republican U.S. Grant, whose straight-ahead amatory style apparently had much in common with his military one. His host was the viceroy of India, Earl Lytton.
This story may be as new to you as it was to me when I encountered it a couple of years ago in Paul Johnson’s collection of political anecdotes. But any reader of history will know that rutting politicians are not a new thing. The 20th century has witnessed many revolting innovations, but this isn’t one of them. Politics seems always to have attracted alpha males. Venery almost goes with the territory, and Gary Hart was practically a traditionalist in this respect, if no other. The Kennedy brothers. Nelson Rockefeller, Lyndon Johnson, Wilbur Mills, Wayne Hays—my fellow Tar Heel Elizabeth Ray never published her appointment book, but Washington gossip says that it was something of a Who’s Who. My source says the only surprise is how many of these old goats were willing to pay for it. But at least they weren’t molesting congressional pages.
Obviously many public figures have disgraceful private lives. So, of course, do many private figures. So what? My question for today is: when is this sort of thing any of our business?
In 1987 there was lot of discussion about whether the Miami Herald had a right to investigate Gary Hart’s sex life. The general conclusion seemed to be yes, if only because Hart had virtually dared the press to do it. But a substantial minority opinion said no, that it was an unjustifiable invasion of Hart’s privacy. (Oddly, or maybe not, I didn’t hear anyone say that Jim Bakker’s shenanigans were none of our business. Think about that.)
Now, I don’t think that we’re entitled to know whatever anyone can dig up about anybody at all. Private citizens have a right to privacy. Even many “public figures” within the meaning of our pitiable libel laws have that right. Moreover, I’d insist that trying to cover up one’s misbehavior is itself relatively petty misbehavior. Gary Hart was far less culpable for lying than for what he did that needed lying about. Jim Bakker’s sin was adultery, not paying hush money—unless the money wasn’t his. La Rochefoucauld’s maxim about hypocrisy is exactly to the point here. (It’s “the tribute vice pays to virtue,” as you may recall.)
But there are whole categories of people whose sexual and financial affairs ought to be fair game for investigative reporters and inquisitive biographers. Foremost among them are our public officials and those who seek to be public officials. We ought to be informed of their peccadilloes, even if we don’t really want to know. We need to be told what kinds of people are seeking the license to speak on our behalf and to push us around. And politicians ought to be harassed anyway, on general principles. The Herald did right (although I hate to see the press get sanctimonious).
We’re also entitled to know—indeed, obliged to inform ourselves—of shabby behavior by those who aspire to positions of moral leadership. People, that is, like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Obviously, marital fidelity and financial integrity are not immaterial to judgments of character, and those who seek the public’s confidence, and contributions, should expect the public’s scrutiny.
But if the case for disclosure is made on that reasoning alone, don’t we lose our right to know about the private lives of politicians who can’t hurt us any more or preachers who no longer want our money? What possible “right” do we have to scurrilous stories about U.S. Grant? How can we be entitled to know about Ike’s girlfriend, or Eleanor Roosevelt’s?
Let’s consider the case that got me started on these reflections, that of Martin Luther King, as revealed in David Garrow’s book. For the record, Garrow is a former colleague and a friend of mine, although we have hardly an opinion in common. One opinion we do share, though, is that King did all of us down here a service by his part in getting the segregation monkey off our backs, and by going about it in the way that he did. King was a brave man and a world-historical figure. But Garrow’s research in the FBI files makes it obvious that he was also a compulsive philanderer.
Maybe King felt bad about it. Maybe he suffered from what my buddy J.R. calls “the heartbreak of satyriasis.” Garrow doesn’t say, although Taylor Branch’s new book suggests that he did. Nevertheless, King continued to misbehave even after it was perfectly plain that the walls had ears.
I don’t believe we have a “right to know” about these activities. But—follow this closely, now—I don’t agree with those who argue that Garrow shouldn’t have reported them. I’d argue that David had no right to suppress what he learned. Like the courts, good truth-telling scholarship and journalism require the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Scholars and journalists should not withhold facts that are part of the story that they are telling (as Jack Kennedy’s hagiographers presumably did).
And certainly not from fear of consequences. Shortly after Garrow’s book appeared, a historian worried in my presence about “what happens when the rednecks get hold of this.” Well, brother (I told him), I’ve got news for you: the rednecks already knew about this. They were telling me about it a quarter-century ago. In my youthful Freudian wisdom I thought they were “projecting,” and they may have been, but even a blind hog gets an acorn sometimes. What’s more, all of my friends with even the remotest connection to “the movement” now assure me that, of course, they knew all about this, too. If Garrow’s revelations haven’t had much in the way of political consequences, it may be because I’m the only American who didn’t know that King was a womanizer.
But even if those revelations somehow discredited the movement as well as its leader, I think Garrow was obliged to report them. When biographers learn something that sheds light on their subjects’ characters, or when journalists learn something newsworthy about figures in the public eye, the canons of their profession rightly require that they tell us. In other words, once Garrow learned about King’s sex life, he could tell us about it or drop his project altogether, but he had no right to present a distorted picture.
I know an anthropologist who disagrees. Basically, like the historian, she fears that Garrow’s account will give aid and comfort to the bad guys. It’s not surprising that this same woman once wrote a book that didn’t mention the economic base of the community she studied, which was burglary. She felt that it would put the community in an unfavorable light; people, she said, “wouldn’t understand.” But public relations be damned: her job as an anthropologist was to make us understand, to tell us about that community. And she didn’t do it. She should have helped us to see what that activity looks like from inside—where, I’m sure, it looks very different.
Just so, Garrow would have been wrong not to tell us what he learned about King. He was writing scholarly biography, not a brief for canonization. If I have a quarrel with him, it’s that he doesn’t begin to explain what he found—indeed, doesn’t seem to recognize that anything needs explaining.
On the other hand, it seems to me that the FBI had not only the right but the obligation to suppress that information. Their job isn’t biography—in fact, they ought to be in the business of keeping secrets. It’s appalling that they had those motel-room tapes in the first place; bugging King’s room was a gross violation of an American citizen’s’ rights, impossible to justify even by the well-founded suspicion that one of his pals was a Communist. But releasing the tapes or transcripts to people like Dave Garrow compounds the offense. And the fact that the Bureau had no choice under the Freedom of Information Act strikes me as still another reason that law needs rethinking. Where does this stop? Can I take those FBI tapes and produce an LP?
I’m unhappy to learn about this aspect of Dr. King’s life. I don’t think the world is a better place because we know about it, and it may be worse. But I’m not sore at Garrow for doing his job. I’m sore at the FBI for eavesdropping in the first place, and for releasing this material in the second.
As for Martin Luther King —well, I find I’m becoming more tolerant in large matters, less so in small (people can’t always keep their marriage vows, but they can turn their damn radios down). Still, I’m sore at Dr. King for his unwillingness or inability to keep his pants on. There would have been nothing to tape, nothing to release, nothing to publish, nothing to explain, if King had behaved as a clergyman—hell, as a husband—ought. There is a cruel irony in the fact that this man, who made such a powerful appeal to conscience, should himself have had a conscience in this respect so manifestly inadequate.
Political and moral leaders ought to behave themselves for the same reason as the rest of us, and for one more reason, peculiar to themselves: misbehavior by a leader betrays his cause. Religious broadcasting will be a long time recovering from the blows that Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart dealt it. The political allies of Gary Hart and John Tower aren’t likely to forgive them anytime soon. Martin Luther King endangered not only his own good name, but the movement he led.
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