"Between ourselves and our real natures we interpose that wax figure of idealizations and selections which we call our character," Walter Lippmann wrote. He might have added that, without friends, we should be forced to serve out our lives holding-up such a wax figure between ourselves and others, too. For we are never so apt to exhibit a perfect, and therefore unreal character, as when we're in public, where heavy penalties are laid on for-being real and rewards handed out for the kind of "high-mindedness" that dissociates itself from all the disorderly passions of the world.
Recently, for instance, President Carter managed to deal effectively with the Libyan business, and reestablish public faith in his "character," by making it known that while he "loves" Billy, he is no longer speaking to him. This evidently reassured quite a few people, who took it as implying that the president had thereby succeeded in rising above venality, greed, impulsiveness and other mortal characteristics: in short, banishing the Billy within himself.
Patronizingly casting out the fool like this is part of a pattern older than Prince Hal and Falstaff, one in which he who would be king or pope assumes a lofty disinterestedness that's so high-minded as to be almost divine. And it is not just politicians who do it, for we journalists do it, too, thus following in the footsteps of Lippmann himself, who didn't seem to need real friends and who, equally with the current president, seemed to have real, working wings on the wax figure of himself that remains permanently levitated above the sweaty, passionate streets where most us toil, and swear, and do and say foolish things.
It was Lippmann who wrote that "art enlarges experience by admitting us to the inner life of others" -- an astonishing notion to those of us who would never dream of putting down our real inner lives on paper and who have perhaps naively supposed that it is friendship, on a frank, no-holds-barred basis, that admits us to the inner life of others -- and vice versa; and that keeps us from going insane.
But Lippmann would in his earry days have contemptuously spurned any such grubby friendship as reeking of gasoline and beer. What "friendships" he did have were -- from his point of view anyway -- on a higher plane. Thus when he would get together with his best friend, the editor of Foreign Affairs, they would talk about the economic situation in Europe, or political shifts in the ruling junta of Japan, or the deplorable intellectual and moral conditions of the American people and what high-minded persons like themselves could do to remedy it. Therefore, for him, public life became life. Banished entirely was all foolishess -- any unruly self that loved wildly, or had intorlerant opinions, or got murderously angry or experienced frustration at not being able to say what it thought.
At the same time, as is chronicled by Ronald Steel in his forthcoming book. Lippmann was also debauching that best friend's wife -- a circumstance I mention not to condemn him but to suggest that his high-mindedness had been unrealistic to begin with. For he evidently broke up his friend's family out of a passionate wish to cool it with the moral elevation now and again, and to have somebody he really could talk to. Not all of him was nice, and the part of him that wasn't was soon expressing itself to his mistress in words like these, concerning his wife: "The fact that she is a coward about life and there is no way in which one can deal in the spirit of human charity with cowards. They have to be 'managed' for their own good." All this while writing columns denouncing the Nazi superman mentality.
Not all of anybody, Jimmy CARTER INCLUDED IS NICE, AND lippmann himself, to his great credit, at last came to understand this, and wrote that things too long unspoken cease to be felt. And there are things to be felt that matter much more than the Supreme Court or the Nazis or the League and the rest. So, in the end, he knew quite well what was going on: that he who seeks to become a publicly celebrated spiritual athlete is storing up trouble for himself and for those whom his actions may affect.
In our time, which considers itself liberated because some of the waitresses downtown have bare breasts, an equally radical public censorship and a cloying, homogenized catch-phrase blandness reign in public life, where a host of things can never be frankly discussed. And since we can't talk about these in public, we must discuss them frankly with our friends, without worrying about whether we are momentarily racist, or bigoted, or sexist or any of those other fool things that we are not supposed to be. We must do this or go mad; for it is better, in the long run, to be sane than to be perfect. For most of us are Billys with our friends, as they are with us. And who would want it otherwise?
This is not to suggest that Jimmy Carter, who is winsome and lovable and terribly concerned with being thought to be good, is about to run amok; but merely to say that the smiling reassurances that he no longer speaks to Billy do not reassure me: and that when the polls say that we Americans think his character is just jake, what they seem to be talking about, instead, is "a wax figure or idealizations and selections," which, if allowed to lead the country, would result in . . . just about what we have now.