In notes he wrote to his incomplete final novel, “The Last Tycoon”, the great F. Scott Fitzgerald made the observation, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Although Fitzgerald is a personal favorite of mine, it has to be admitted that he was wrong on this point. Oftentimes just when you think someone is never going to change, they do something that completely surprises you, which changes the game completely.
Take Jacqueline Bouvier for example. She started out as a debutante, and then became the wife of the rising young Senator John F. Kennedy. As First Lady Jackie Kennedy, she became an American icon and the pin-up girl for many in the American Establishment. After her first husband’s assassination and her remarriage, she then became “Jackie O”, glamorous international jet-setter as much at home on the Costa del Sol as she was in Hyannis Port, which some saw as an unforgivable sin. Then after the death of her second husband, she went on to become a fixture in the New York publishing world and Manhattan society, and all was forgotten: she was even buried next to President Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery. I count at least five, and probably more, acts just in that very truncated timeline of her life.
Or look at Abraham Lincoln who, despite his fame as one of the greatest political figures in the history of this country, had one of the most abysmal backgrounds with respect to achieving elected office that you could possibly imagine. Many Americans are unaware that Lincoln ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1844, the U.S. Senate in 1855, the Vice-Presidency in 1856, and the U.S. Senate in 1858. He lost them all, and no doubt when he was elected President in 1860 one could have been forgiven for asking someone to pass the smelling salts, given his past electoral track record.
The truth is that Americans are a strange breed when it comes to how we see our public figures; we seem to forgive and forget things which might seem surprising. I can criticize the Director of the National Park Service for failing to do his job on Friday, but when he finally does his job on Saturday, I can congratulate him for doing it and move on to other matters – and by the way good job, Mr. Jenkins, good job. A celebrity may do something completely ill-advised as a result of addiction or poor judgment that makes us shun them, but if they manage to put their life back together, we are happy for them and give them another chance to succeed – Rob Lowe, Robert Downey Jr., Stevie Nicks, etc. We may dredge up quotes and misdeeds during our election campaigns, but as winning candidates from Grover Cleveland to Bill Clinton could tell you, it is often not the skeleton in the closet, but how both you and your opponent handle that skeleton when light is inevitably shed on it that matters in the court of public opinion.
Whether or not this is something peculiar to the American character I do not know. However one thing that is clear is that these second – and third, and fourth – acts are also a good occasion for us to take a look at ourselves, and our own choices and behaviors. We may not be too desirous to cast the first stone if we are unsure of our own sanctity.
That being said, there is a place for criticism that Fitzgerald implicitly recognized in his observation. As a fellow Catholic, Fitzgerald would have been aware of the concepts of both vincible and invincible ignorance, where the culpability of the individual depends to some extent on their circumstances. At the same time, he would also have been aware that a sin of omission may be committed when one has the opportunity to speak up, but fails to do so.
With the confrontation presently taking place between the Obama Administration and the Catholic Church with respect to the healthcare mandate requiring that Catholic institutions provide medical coverage for abortifacients, contraceptives, and sterilizations, many may not understand the position of the Church with respect to Catholics like Representative Nancy Pelosi or Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius who are advocating these laws. In pointing out that they are not following the Church’s teachings, or are misrepresenting those teachings, the bishops are not suggesting that these persons are, in some sort of predestined, quasi-Calvinistic way, doomed to damnation. Rather the hope is that by being shown their error and the consequences of their actions, these persons will come to see the light, and realize that they have acted or spoken wrongly, and change for the better – that there will in fact be a second act, as it were, with a happy ending to boot.
For those who are skeptical that second acts make any difference, one need only look at the example of Norma McCorvey. Her real name may be unfamiliar to the reader, but you certainly know her name as the plaintiff in one of the most infamous cases in legal history: Roe v. Wade. Under her legal pseudonym “Jane Roe”, the case brought by McCorvey made abortion on demand legal in the United States in 1973. She subsequently came to regret what she had done, converted to Catholicism, and now works as a pro-life activist.
Many of us will never undergo such a dramatic change in our own lives, of course, or be involved in such heady issues of national importance. Yet if we are so willing to allow politicians and celebrities the chance to re-define themselves and achieve some measure of fulfillment, perhaps we should be a bit more sympathetic to the idea of permitting people we encounter in our daily lives the opportunity to do the same thing. Given our flawed nature and the frailty of the human condition, we ought to hope, rather than otherwise, that we are all given a second act of our own.