Viewing liked public figures as flawed humans, Paul McCartney and Ben Franklin edition

As a kid, I had a difficult time seeing current or past public figures as heroes or people to emulate. Perhaps this contributed to why I study sociology and often think of people in a collective. As an adult, I wonder about the flaws of public figures and the cultural narrative we see/hear about them versus what is true. Two recent examples with figures I have heard/seen/read about my entire life came to mind.

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Paul McCartney. Reviewing a new publication about McCartney’s song lyrics, an author says:

Reading song lyrics on a page is a definitively incomplete endeavor and in Paul’s case more than most, given that he’s one of the most aurally gifted people to ever walk the face of the earth. McCartney’s best lyrics are marvels of musicality, so expertly fitted to their setting that you almost take them for granted. Consider the beginning of 1965’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” an intoxicating tornado of language and, finally, non-language: “I’ve just seen a face/ I can’t forget the time and place where we’ve just met/ she’s just girl for me and I want all the world to see/ we’ve met, mm mm mm mmm mm.” He wants all the world to see they’ve met; what a beautiful little sentiment. Take, also, “Close your eyes, and I’ll kiss you,” such a perfect opening line for a love song that we forget that someone actually thought it up. He can be a master of evocation—“changing my life with a wave of her hand”—and aphoristic bons mots that stick in your head: “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.” Even better: “You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer,” one of those perfectly McCartney-an phrases that feels like so much more than it actually says.

Paul McCartney has been one of the most famous people on earth for nearly 60 years, and in many ways, he has served as the best model of how to be a celebrity: He’s disarmingly amiable, boundlessly energetic, gracious and graceful in the face of unimaginable fame. And yet, beneath the charm and composure, there’s always been a guardedness to him; it’s notable, for instance, that McCartney’s never written a proper memoir, a fact he acknowledges in the foreword to The Lyrics. He’s carefully curated his public persona on his own terms, a move that’s occasionally mistaken for phoniness, or worse. His seemingly flippant reaction to John Lennon’s death mere hours after John’s murder, for instance, earned McCartney widespread scorn from rock press and fans, a vilification he wouldn’t live down for years. But watching the clip today is just heartbreaking: Here’s a man clearly in the throes of grief, struggling to hold it together in the face of the most ghoulish extremities of celebrity media. In his eyes is a raw and terrified vulnerability that’s impossible to shake.

Yet, Paul has his flaws. After reading a lot about the Beatles, his band mates knew these flaws. By the end of the career, they wondered if his endless interest in showmanship was an act or real. He could be perfectionistic and too flippant with his music. He showed less interest in deeper subject material. That these came out could be chalked up to different personalities and conflict among the band but they have also dogged him throughout his public life.

Ben Franklin is a second figure I have encountered in several ways recently. In reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with several groups of students, Franklin features prominently as an exemplar of the Puritan work ethic. Franklin is largely reduced to a set of aphorisms, admittedly famous ones. I also read through a children’s picture book biography of Franklin and they highlighted several major contributions he made. Yet, Franklin was also a flawed character. He had several long-lasting unrepaired relationships. He was a philander. He seriously pursued self-discipline but he could not achieve everything.

By nature of being revered public figures, there may not be much room for revealing or discussing flaws. Many historical treatments emphasize high points or the better sides of the heroes of the narrative. Yet, all humans are flawed. Many of the greatest figures had traits or behaviors they did not want to share or people did not want to focus on. Figuring out ways to acknowledge this with both living and past figures could be helpful in developing figures that are worth emulating.

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