Saturday, February 06, 2010

Andrew Young & the Ethics of Ambition

I've always been fond of Andrew Young--not the assistant and accessory after the fact to former presidential candidate John Edwards (not the eighteenth century pastor-theologian), but Andrew Young the former mayor of Atlanta, ambassador to the United Nations and key player in the Civil Rights Movement. I feel bad for this Andrew Young--and for Jonathan Edwards the theologian, for that matter--that events of the past two years have overshadowed their significant historic accomplishments.

Yet I must confess, I feel a little bad for the new Andrew Young as well. I heard him interviewed on the radio this week, discussing his role in attempting to cover up the new John Edwards's affair. The radio host called him "probably the sleaziest person I've ever interviewed." I don't suppose they were face to face during this interchange, but they were likely as close as radio interviews get. Maybe it's because I know how much pressure authors feel from publishers to sell their own books, but this exercise in indignity made me feel bad for the guy.

It also reminded me of something I recently read (or re-read, as I am wont to do in the case of this book). In Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, nature's most nearly perfect book (which I rely on a great deal in Deliver Us from Me-Ville), author Brian Mahan talks about the various "bells" that ring throughout our pursuit of vocation. Some, he says, are like "the inkin, a bell used in Zen practice to announce the start of a period of silent attentiveness." Others are less reflective and more urgent, such as "the tocsin, or alarm bell, that warns of imminent danger" (p. 74).

Mahan goes on to review the curious case of John Dean (not Jimmy Dean, the sausage guy, nor John Deere, the tractor guy), former legal counsel to President Nixon. Dean was a young, up and coming attorney when he was invited to join the president's staff. He was living the high life during the events that led to Nixon's eventual downfall. At the same time, for example, that he was enjoying direct access to the leader of the free world, he was being given permission by one of the architects of the Watergate break-in, G. Gordon Liddy, to "have him shot if this would help with the cover-up." Dean was enjoying first-class flights and accommodations wherever he went at the same time he and his assistant, Fred Fielding, were deciding to put on surgical gloves "to avoid leaving fingerprints" while they "rifled through Howard Hunt's safe" (p. 75). They don't teach you that stuff in law school, so far as I know.

Mahan's intent in rehearsing Dean's story is to show how easy it is to deceive ourselves when we're caught up in something big. He doesn't excuse himself from this scrutiny; he goes on to tell the story of what great lengths he was willing to go to win a round of "hide the eraser" in grade school. Trust me, it's gross. But it's an important observation nonetheless.

Andrew Young indicated during his animus-dripping radio interview that his judgment was clouded by the thought that "what we were doing would literally change the world." He had long before decided that John Edwards was presidential material, qualified to lead the free world and for his time the best person for the job. Little indiscretions like a dalliance were scandalous enough to derail the train of history but little enough that they shouldn't be allowed to.

So in the thin air of a presidential campaign, Young became convinced that pretending to be the father of a child born to a woman his boss was having an affair with was politically expedient, if not patriotic. Life was moving too fast, with too much drama as a constant companion. Young couldn't hear the bells, Mahan might say. Only time could clear the air enough to see how absurd his patriotic impulse was, how closely his idealism resembled hubris, arrogance.

The trouble with living history is that it doesn't become history till you're dead. Till then, it's simply wading through wave after wave of urgent decision-making and murky ethical optioneering. "If you are to be armed for success in the real world," Mahan observes, "the capacity to rationalize on your feet, extemporaneously and with conviction is not optional; it is required" (p. 84). So I feel bad for Andrew Young, though my opinion of his behavior has not changed from shock and revulsion. There but for the grace of God, I suspect, go I. Till then, may we all listen for the bells as they ring their messages to each of us, and may we do as they suggest, because when it comes to the ethics of ambition, the bells are a blessing.

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