The idea that any of us can be run through a centrifuge, with our virtues floating gracefully to the top while our vices drop like sediment, is usually a faulty one. More often than not, our strengths and our weaknesses are part of the same imperfect, unbroken whole. Think of Barack Obama this summer, who sustained not a few arrows for failing to muster sufficient outrage over the oil spill in the Gulf—as if his coolheadedness and even-handedness weren’t precisely what made him capable of beating Hillary Clinton, McChrystalgate, and the longest odds on health-care and finance reform (not to mention that a black man with even the slightest hint of anger would never have made it to the Oval Office in the first place).
We criticized him for vacationing in Maine in July when he should have been in the Gulf (and for spending only 27 hours on holiday there in August), conveniently forgetting we elected him because he’s not the type to poll-test vacations; we all pounced on Michelle for jet-setting to a fabulous resort in Spain, when it’s her glamour—and refreshing indifference to what the world thinks of her—that earns her so much awe and respect, though it’s sometimes begrudging.
Even LeBron James, whose narcissistic showboating rightly drew lots of contemptuous ink last month, was, if you think about it, making a choice that was inseparable from the things we like about him most: his being young, and therefore having a whole career ahead of him; his being a generous player on the court, a facilitator rather than a hog. And where would a young person, a 25-year-old, choose to live? Miami, where he could hang out and party. And for whom would a player with a realistic sense of his own assets play? The Heat, a team that already has a star.
In the last couple of weeks, Christopher Hitchens, the ruthless critic and irrepressible bon vivant, sat with both Anderson Cooper and Charlie Rose to discuss his current struggle with esophageal cancer. Each interviewer, in his own way, wanted to know whether Hitchens thought he had some hand in his own illness, and if so, whether he regretted the life he’d led. On the one hand, this was a perfectly fair question to ask: Hitchens gave up smoking in the shower only a few years ago, and he drinks at least one bottle of wine and two slugs of Scotch per day (which, if you read between the lines of his new memoir, Hitch-22, is a heroic concession to moderation). On the other hand, the question betokened a rather oversimplified view of humanity and self-concept: Christopher Hitchens wouldn’t have been Christopher Hitchens if he hadn’t combined a life of cheerful debauchery with his writing and first-class wit. “I think all the time I’ve felt that life is a wager,” he told Rose, “and that I probably was getting more out of leading a bohemian existence, as a writer, than I would have if I didn’t.” So he’d do it again? Rose asked. “Yeah,” said Hitchens. “I think I would.”
Maybe people don’t like thinking very hard in the summer, which could explain why these public figures have been portrayed, and viewed, in such a binary way. But as the fall begins, it’s important to remember that it’s all an optical illusion: Stare at them long enough, and those devils will turn to angels, those old women to young girls.