Tuesday, July 7, 2009
This morning I read the passage in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals in which Abraham Lincoln felt it beneath dignity to vote for himself for president on Election Day 1860, but went to the polls to cast his ballot for Illinois state and local offices.
A few minutes later came David Brooks's New York Times column on the code of manners that George Washington followed. I am not generally an acolyte of Brooks's conservative politics, but read him for his stylish and principled reasoning, free from partisan name-calling. He writes:
"The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm."
Brooks misses the sense of privacy and politeness (sometimes called "gravitas") our national leaders used to have. In particular he cites Sarah Palin's recent chaotic press conference: "Here was a woman who aspires to a high public role but is unfamiliar with the traits of equipoise and constancy, which are the sources of authority and trust."
Conversely, Brooks hopes the famously quiet and calm but nuanced behavior of Barack Obama will have an impact on the rest of us:
"Whatever policy differences people may have with him, we can all agree that he exemplifies reticence, dispassion and the other traits associated with dignity. The cultural effects of his presidency are not yet clear, but they may surpass his policy impact. He may revitalize the concept of dignity for a new generation and embody a new set of rules for self-mastery."
The same thing, I think, ought to apply to autobiography. Today's personal chronicles are tell-alls that go into embarrassing and excruciating detail about their authors' missteps with booze, drugs and sex, as if they were written with the hope that Oprah would notice and call them to her show for a hour-long wallow in personal catharsis.
On all levels of American life we need a return to dignity -- and let us not mistake that for stuffiness.