Sunday, July 12, 2009

Two Deaths: Robert McNamara and Michael Jackson

Robert McNamara died on July 6, and Michael Jackson died on June 25. News of the death of Jackson, the megastar entertainer, has driven news of the death of McNarama, architect of the Vietnam war, to the margin of the news cycle. On George Stephanopoulos’ program this morning, Michael Jackson was discussed at the Round Table (will a group of commentators, on the air), while Robert McNamara got a few pictures, without comment, on the In Memoriam section.

I suppose that the Vietnam war is old news. It may reside in the political and military DNA of the U.S.A., but it’s not a hot item; and not very important to the fans of Jackson, most of whom were too young to have been around during the war. Besides, Vietnam is a war that many in the U.S.A. would rather not remember.

McNamara and Jackson are worthy subjects for reflection: each outstandingly talented and achieving the pinnacle of success in his field--managerial leadership for McNamara, popular entertainment for Jackson--and each the tragic victim of his success.

It seems to me that neither the public effusion of emotion following Jackson’s death, nor the relative silence following McNamara’s, feels right. Both men were brilliant in some ways and tragically flawed in others. McNamara’s life has been looked at in detail, while Jackson’s has yet to be, notwithstanding all the publicity he received. But neither man’s life, to borrow a phrase from a Jackson song, can be understood entirely in “black or white.”

McNamara, the man with the quieter obituary, seems to me to have lived the much more consequential life, and in fact did a lot more damage. He goes to his reward, such as it may be, with the deaths of 58,000 Americans and between 1 and 3 million Vietnamese on his hands; as well as the pain of the physically and psychologically wounded, and their children and theirs, and generations poisoned by the toxic residues of the defoliant Agent Orange, millions of gallons of which were dumped on Vietnam. He spent the rest of his life trying to do good, trying to balance the books. Of course, he felt that he was trying to do good as Secretary of Defense, managing the Vietnam war. His life is a case study in good intentions.

It is certainly a special contribution that he came forward, in a memoir, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," and a documentary film by Errol Morris, “The Fog of War,” to try to present what he had learned from his mistakes in Vietnam. While I agree with those critics of McNamara who feel that he didn’t go deep enough in his public self-reflections, didn’t get down to the core of what he believed about himself that allowed him to do what he did, it’s also true that he didn’t have to come out with a public examination of his decisions at all, especially when he admitted making mistakes of such dreadful consequence. I think everyone should see “The Fog of War.”

There is still not much reliable information about Jackson’s life, notwithstanding all the publicity that he benefited and suffered from. It will emerge over time, I expect, as reporters do the research, talk to people, get the facts, and publish them. The haste with which so many public mourners seem to be trying to build a Jackson legend makes it seem like they are trying to erect a monument over his life which will keep the facts buried beneath it. To the extent that there’s any validity in that impression, I don’t think it will work over the long run. There’s too much curiosity about this King of Pop, and too much market value in his biography, so I expect that the facts will come out.

I asked a client, a middle aged woman who is often wise notwithstanding a bunch of learning disabilities, what she thought about Jackson. “I really liked him when he was a kid and young man,” she said, “but then he got really weird.”

Unlike McNamara, Jackson never did any public self-examination. Perhaps he might have if he’d lived. There’s no evidence of real self-reflection in his referrals to suffering the intrusions of his life; that of abuse by his father, of prying from media, and of repeated legal accusations. While the cause of his death remains to be announced--it was not included on his death certificate--speculation is that some lethal cocktail of drugs, prescription and perhaps illegal, was involved.

Jackson’s tragic personal decline after achieving the pinnacle of pop fame recalls that of the earlier King of Pop, Elvis Presley; also dead in middle age, reportedly of a lethal cocktail of prescription drugs, after his personal life had spun out of control following his unprecedented success as an entertainer. Jackson had reportedly set himself to become the King of Pop. His marriage to Presley’s daughter may have been more about merging with the legend of the King than love; although they might have found union in their experiences of the spectral ups and downs of the limelight.

Jackson seems to have lived his way into the roles that he aspired to, even changing himself physically with plastic surgery. There can be a particular genius in that--Bob Dylan’s career shows a similar pattern of the artist vanishing into different roles. Perhaps it was a combination of this type of genius and a tragic lack of self-reflection or sense of boundaries that made Jackson merge with others through his physical appearance, rather than just through his personality and his art.

I wonder what kind of personal integrity, what kind of anchoring of the self, is necessary for performers like Presley and Jackson to be able to manage so much fame and wealth without being damaged by it. The Beatles famously decided to stop touring because they couldn't hear themselves play over their screaming fans, and however much their heads may have been turned by their fame and wealth, the impression is that at some point, after all the hard work and insane success, each one got his feet more or less on the ground and put his life ahead of the pursuit of more and more success. But they were a group, not an individual.

I wonder whether an individual performer who did have sufficient personal integrity and self-anchoring would even go after so much fame in the first place; although, if that's where your whole life had been pointing you, how could you not? I wonder if Jackson, so talented and driven by his father’s ambition before his own took over, ever had a chance to go through any other door than that of pop fame. I wonder if there was ever a time when his self had a chance to develop for its own sake. For McNamara, it seems to have been power, not fame, that drew him; power and a desire to serve that was warped by a self in need of serious work before he could manage the power he was reaching for.

There’s a certain bleak amusement in imagining the souls of Michael Jackson and Robert McNamara, having died within a couple of weeks of each other, and so different from each other, together in a waiting room in the afterlife (heaven or hell, you choose), awaiting their judgment, having a conversation about the successes and failures, as they would like to see them, of their lives. Perhaps, as they listen and respond to each other, the super-dynamic performer who touched so many people with his art and hurt some with his life, and the super-analytical director whose power hurt so many people and who then tried to help on a commensurate scale, might begin to find some of the the perspective that was so lacking in their lives. But someone else would still have to teach them about self-reflection, about insight, for neither could teach the other about that.