In our warp-speed age, he took three hours and 18 minutes to resign: Next day, as Gannett columnist Mark Hare noted, a Google search for “congressman Lee” or “shirtless Lee” sired a stunning 202,000 results.
Recently, columnist Kevin Frisch explored the public consequences of former Rep. Chris Lee’s odyssey to oblivion. Let me suggest the personal lessons.
Those of a certain generation recall Art Linkletter’s book “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” At one time or another, adults do the most wayward — you might say Leeward — things.
By now, Cairo, Illinois and Egypt know how the Empire State’s then-congressman recently sent a shirtless picture of himself to secure a date via the online classified Craigslist.com. Portland, Maine and Oregon know how, if lying is an art form, Lee’s e-mail aped Renoir –– he claimed to be 39, a lobbyist and divorced. In reality, he is 46, married with a young son and (he was) a three-year congressman.
New York and Minnesota surely know the coda: A 30-something single mother got Lee’s e-mail, accessed Facebook, cross-checked the info and spilled the beans to an online gossip site, immortally named Gawker.com. The rest is history, like Lee.
In our warp-speed age, he took three hours and 18 minutes to resign: Next day, as Gannett columnist Mark Hare noted, a Google search for “congressman Lee” or “shirtless Lee” sired a stunning 202,000 results. To paraphrase Styx, the jig is up, the news is out and they’ve finally found him. What can we find — and learn — in this sad adieu?
First, l’affaire re-teaches fallibility. As religion says, human perfection is to be attempted, not achieved. Especially in today’s privacy-free zone, skeletons will more often than not surface. The straight and narrow is still the safest road of all.
Another lesson about proportion explores the question of why? Did Lee think rules applied to others, not himself? Was he simply bored? Did hacks and flacks fuel hubris — unaccountability? In “My Fair Lady,” Henry Higgins says of Eliza Doolittle, “What could have possessed her?” Perspective keeps demons from the door.
Lesson three explores the equally puzzling, for what? Was Lee’s cheap thrill worth it? Did he betray trust because, as Bill Clinton said, “I could”? We tell children, look before you leap; choose long-term, not immediate, reward.
By that rule, Clinton, Mark Sanford and John Edwards are about nine. So are New York’s Lee, Eric Massa and Eliot Spitzer: Some states get all the luck.
A fourth lesson is to examine the inner life. What kind of people are we, individually? Do we believe in “do unto others” or the 1960s claptrap “If it feels good, do it”? What kind of parent would condemn son or daughter to taunt, barb and shame? Which of these adults behaving badly thought of their children? If so, did they even care?
Finally, what of us, collectively? Are Lee and Massa what we have become? New York once meant family, modesty, honor. Does it still? Has it changed –– are leaders the bottom-dwelling slugs we deserve? Or should we demand more of officials because we haven’t changed? Lessons learned stem from questions asked.
Politics has always been a combat sport. Today’s toxic culture has made it lethal. It is easy to say that Lee had a screw loose, but it is harder for us to eye a mirror. This is not a reasonable definition of progress.
At a time like this, you could say that adults do the most childlike things — except that analogy would be unfair to kids.
Curt Smith is the author of 13 books; a former speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush; and host of WXXI Radio’s “Perspectives.” His views do not necessarily reflect the station’s. Email him at email@example.com.