I suppose we are always rewriting history, making, destroying and reconstructing reputations along the way. We often deal with our largest public figures the way we deal with our parents, going from illusion to disillusion to finally, perhaps, some sort of perspective.
So I shouldn't be surprised at the toasts that have been written to Hubert Horatio Humphrey - words as elegant as his name. Humphrey is, to all of us who've been around a while, unique.
He's a man who possess the sort of tenacity born of optimism, rather than bitterness. His career is in many ways unparalleled, and he's been a figure on the landscape of our national lives, full of richness, for three decades.
The tributes that have been written now, in his sickness, tip their hats to him, with fondness. Yet it strikes me as odd that the current reviews of his life inevitably skim over four years. They excised 1964 through 1968 as if those years were a wart.
The toastmasters are, I am sure, being kind. But their kindness is the sort that diminishes the man rather than accepts him.
I am, myself, of the in-between generation. I remember both his civil-rights record and the night of Aug. 28, 1968, when he sat in his room 25 floors above the Chicago streets. I remember both how he stood up to Joe McCarthy and collapsed beside Lyndon Johnson.
I voted him for that fall after that summer of 1968 (don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts) but with a sense of his complexity and frailty. I believe that he is a good man who made a bad mistake. The odds are in his favor, as is my own simple affection.
But I wonder, as so many other times, why we rush to a narrow judgement. Why do we need to build a perfect case - for or against - each other and our leaders? We seem to prefer our characters to be stick, or at least stock.
We built John F. Kennedy into King Arthur and now see his part rewritten into Cassanova. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kissinger, the best and the brightest, are all lit up from one angle or the other. The continual rewriting of the character of Jimmy Carter goes on even now, with each new version being offered as the true portrait.
Yet there is no Definitive Person. Each of us contains a wide variety of possibilities and attitudes. We have the potential for a range of responses - from the charitable to the harsh, from the obsequious to the overbearing, from the "good" to the "bad" - to be trapped by the events of our lives. It's not that we are slaves to circumstances, but rather that our complexity interacts with events in different ways.
Humphrey has always been a man of ebullience and courage. Yet he was also, for a time, cowed by that most intimidating of men, Lyndon Johnson. He is a man of kindness and morality, but there was also ambition. He is an exultant speaker, a verbal hugger - but he doesn't always know when to let go.
I think that. peculiarly, Humphrey's strongest point is his perspective on himself. He - more than the rest of us, perhaps - can accept all that he is and was, even the warts, and go on. He once said about the Vietnam war: "I'd rather be remembered for being wrong than for being a hypocrite."
It seems to me more kind to paint the whole picture of anyone than to draw them one-dimensionally. The need for heroes isn't all that great. The need for a sense of wholeness is. Humphrey, of all men, is full. It doesn't suit his style to edit his past. It doesn't really do him justice.
Years ago, I heard him close a marathon speech to a somnolent after-dinner crowd with a final self-mocking line: "Muriel tells me that I don't have to be interminable in order to be immortal."
He doesn't have to be perfect either.