Who’s Perfect ?


The name Cesar Chavez, for many, represents a remarkably uplifting episode in 20th Century American history.  Chavez is credited for almost single-handedly spearheading a successful campaign to organize hitherto powerless California farm workers into a union (United Farm Workers) and for winning contracts from growers who had long dictated the terms of labor in the fields.  It was a signal triumph for Chavez whose ingenious strategy of promoting a nationwide boycott of grapes prompted millions of Americans to support his cause.

Recently, however, a documentary film and a well-received biography of Chavez tells a somewhat different story.  Chavez’s victories were, we are informed, short-lived.  Moreover, he was largely to blame for the disappointments that followed.  He paid little attention to maintaining the union he founded.  Contracts were not renewed while Chavez himself became increasingly isolated and pre-occupied with a semi-religious cult to which he devoted his energies.  Most significantly the overall judgment is that the workers he once championed are not much better off today than when he first advanced their cause.  If this represents an accurate assessment of his career it got me to think about other individuals of notable accomplishments who nevertheless stumbled or acted in ways that raised disturbing questions about their legacies.

Benedict Arnold

            An inscription at the Saratoga National Historical Park in New York State memorializing Benedict Arnold (though not by name) reads in part, “in memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army [who won] for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution.”  Indeed, Arnold was, at least in the early years of the war, a genuine hero rising from Captain to Colonel, then General in rapid order.  He helped capture Fort Ticonderoga, assumed a major role in the assault on Quebec, constructed a fleet of boats that battled courageously against a superior English fleet on Lake Champlain and helped ward off British attacks along the coast of Connecticut.  His significant contributions to the pivotal battle at Saratoga only added to his reputation as did the fact that he was wounded three times during all these military engagements.  But of course Arnold is no American hero but rather became a despised traitor when, for a variety of reasons he deserted during the war to the British.  Not only did he cross over and join the enemy but he then received the rank of Brigadier General and staged several campaigns against American forces, especially across Virginia and at New Haven, Connecticut.  A once celebrated military leader thus became a man universally reviled in America.

Henry Ford

            Henry Ford truly deserves an honored place among the pioneers of perhaps America’s greatest industry – the production of automobiles.  He was instrumental in the construction of the first reliable cars and organizing a network of dealers to popularize and market his vehicles across the United States.  His Model T became the standard of excellence and reliability in the field even as he continued to lower its price from year to year.  To achieve greater efficiency Ford installed moving assembly lines in 1913, thereby raising production to new heights.  The next year Ford introduced the unheard of wage of five dollars a day, a master stroke which reduced worker turnover, attracted skilled labor and helped production workers to actually afford the automobiles they were producing.

Ford proved far less praiseworthy and forward looking with regard to certain other matters.  His Social Department employed scores of investigators who intruded into the lives of his employees in an effort to root out undesirable behavior such as drinking or gambling.  Ford strongly opposed labor unions, insisting that their leaders did not advance the best interests of the workers.  More disturbing was Ford’s outspoken antisemitism, a point of view consistently put forward in the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper he owned.  Jews were responsible, he claimed, for most of the ills of the world, were to blame for World War I, and were also attempting to control the finances of the United States through the Federal Reserve System.  The fact that Adolph Hitler placed a picture of Henry Ford on his desk surely confirms the virulence of Ford’s views.  A celebrated captain of industry, Ford was far from enlightened when it came to understanding the world around him.

Charles Lindbergh

            Few Americans have received the adulation accorded Charles Lindbergh in 1927 and in the years that followed.  This boyish-looking 25-year-old achieved something no one else had ever done.  He had flown his single engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, by himself across the Atlantic, spent over 33 hours in flight before landing in Paris.  It was an extraordinary feat for this one-time plane mechanic and air mail pilot.  Others had tried before and many died in their attempts, but Lindbergh succeeded and thereby claimed the $25,000 prize for his successful effort.  Few had heard of Lindbergh before his flight, now practically everyone in the Western world knew who he was.  He was an honest-to-goodness American hero, and awards were showered upon him.

But there was a less than heroic side to Lindbergh, one that surfaced in the late 1930s when war clouds were gathering and President Franklin Roosevelt was attempting to persuade Americans that Nazi Germany would soon begin an aggressive war.  Lindbergh, however, opposed any American involvement and became a prominent spokesman for the America First Committee which insisted upon continued American isolation.  Lindbergh visited Germany and there received the Order of the Eagle awarded to him by Luftwaffe Commander Hermann Goring.  He praised German aircraft and warned England and France that they would not be able to match Germany’s military strength.  Lindbergh was not unsympathetic to Germany’s anti-Jewish policies and, as a proponent of eugenics, urged the United States to guard against dilution by “foreign races.”  In fairness, once war broke out Lindbergh was back in the skies flying combat missions in the Pacific Theater.

There is much to assess before passing final judgment on Charles Lindbergh, including the fact that long after his death in1974, it was revealed that this one-time exemplar of traditional values had fathered seven out-of-wedlock children with three different European mistresses!

Stokely Carmichael

            Though initially skeptical, a youthful Stokely Carmichael plunged into the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s and displayed exceptional bravery and impressive organizing abilities.  He became a Freedom Rider venturing into the hostile state of Mississippi; then assisted local activists in Alabama launch a voter registration drive and there helped form an independent political party.  These activities led to his becoming chairman of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC).  After but a year, however, he left that position and became a full-time travelling speech maker on behalf of “Black Power.”  At this point his rhetoric became explosive, especially when he spoke of vengeance and preparations for urban guerrilla warfare.  Accused of stoking racial hatred and violence, he eventually left the United States for Guinea in West Africa (and assumed a new name, Kwame Ture).  Though he toured many college campuses in the 1970s and 80s and 90s, he had, even sympathetic observers agreed, become politically irrelevant.

Lyndon Johnson

            Lyndon Johnson was by all accounts extraordinarily skilled in the arts of political persuasion.  Few Congressmen or Senators, it was asserted, could resist “the Treatment,” i.e., Johnson’s ability to bring others to his way of thinking and to voting in favor of his legislative agenda.  As Senate Majority Leader, this ability was often on display and, as President, he was equally successful.  After his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, Johnson pressed forward with an impressive legislative package.  Known collectively as “the Great Society,” taken together it represented landmark liberal initiatives, second only to the New Deal of the 1930s.  It included signature legislation on Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Immigration, Poverty, Education and Health Insurance – transformative changes that profoundly reshaped American society.  Nothing like it has happened since.

Despite these lustrous accomplishments, Lyndon Johnson chose not to seek the presidency in 1968 and left office deeply unpopular.  His undoing was the Vietnam Conflict, an increasingly bitter struggle that brought mounting U.S. casualties and increased public frustration at Johnson’s inability to extricate America from the war. ” If we allow Vietnam to fall tomorrow,” Johnson asserted, “we’ll be fighting in Hawaii and next week in San Francisco.”  Johnson poured more troops into the region, authorized extensive bombing campaigns but at best achieved only a most costly stalemate.  The “Great Society,” though it remained, became overshadowed by what came to be viewed as the Great Folly of Vietnam.

O.J. Simpson

            He had it all – looks, talent, charisma and uncanny athletic skills that would lead to a noteworthy career playing football.  First in the University of Southern California and subsequently in the National Football League, O.J. Simpson, as a running back, compiled statistics that brought wide acclaim and recognition as he established numerous records, some of which still stand.  After his playing career ended in 1979 he remained in the public eye as a commentator on TV’s Monday Night Football and on the NFL on NBC.  He also enjoyed an acting career both on TV and in the movies, where his good looks and engaging personality entertained audiences year after year.

But then the public learned that his former wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, had been brutally murdered and that the prime suspect was O.J. Simpson.  A sensational criminal trial followed with tens of millions watching it all unfold on national television.  In a highly controversial decision Simpson was acquitted but was later found guilty in a civil trial that levied damages in excess of $33million dollars.  In the years that followed, Simpson was tried for a variety of other crimes, including armed robbery.  He is currently serving a prison sentence at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada.

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