ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–“The measure of a man’s character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out,” Thomas Babington Macaulay. The 19th-century English statesman understood that who we are in private –- what we do when no one is looking –- is who we really are.
Macaulay’s wisdom is not only, as the Brits would say, spot on, it is also time-tested. If you really want insight into a man’s character, disregard his public persona — his carefully crafted image — and pay attention to his behind-the-scenes behavior.
A case in point is Jesse Jackson. The so-called civil rights leader has once again been caught using language unbecoming a leader, especially a leader that covets the title of “reverend.”
It seems that while on a break during a recent appearance on the Fox News Channel, Jackson thought his microphone was off and that he was engaged in a private conversation. As a result of this presumed privacy, he whispered to another guest that he did not like the way Barack Obama “talked down” to black people. Jackson then used a crude phrase to indicate that he would like nothing better than to turn Obama into a eunuch.
Once Jackson was alerted to the fact the remarks were to be made public, he issued an apology. He said the comment was “hurtful and wrong” and that he was “very sorry.” However, Jackson also indicated that his comments were in the context of a “private conversation” and “not a public speech or declaration.”
Jackson’s apology indicates as much about the man as does his crude statements. In essence he said that his crass comments came during a private conversation. Don’t judge me by my crude whisperings, Jackson implied, but rather judge me on my carefully crafted and rehearsed public oratory.
This is not the first time Jackson has been caught with his foot in his private mouth. In 1984 — in what he thought was an off-the-record conversation with a reporter — he referred to New York City by using an anti-Semitic slur. At first Jackson denied having used the offensive term. Eventually he did apologize for using the slur, but only after indicating it occurred in what Jackson thought was an off-the-record conversation. “Charge it [the racial remark] to my head … not my heart,” Jackson said.
In seems that in Jackson’s world the head and the heart, the public and the private, are not connected. You can put on a show for the masses on stage while acting the exact opposite behind the scenes.
Jackson’s delusional thinking about a public-private disconnect is further illustrated by the fact that in 2001 it was revealed that roughly two years earlier he had had an extramarital affair that resulted in the birth of a daughter.
Jackson is not alone and I don’t take any joy in pointing out his indiscretions. He just happens to be a convenient illustration. There are any a number of leaders -– conservative and liberal –- who seem to operate on the premise that what they do in private should have no bearing on their public self and service. Like a scene from the “Wizard of Oz,” these so-called leaders say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” They’re saying, “Just be impressed with the image I project.”
There are no perfect people and thus no perfect leaders. However, leaders are the thermostats for an organization and society. They set the standard, the temperature as it were, of what we could and should be. We need leaders who place living a virtuous life ahead of projecting a good public image.
Leaders cannot exist apart from followers. If there is a lack of leaders in America who understand that who we are in private — what we do when no one is looking — is who we really are, followers bear some of the responsibility. Responsible followers demand responsible leaders. To think otherwise is foolish or delusional –- perhaps both.
Kelly Boggs, whose column appears each week in Baptist Press, is editor of the Baptist Message, the newspaper of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, which is online at baptistmessage.com.