What They Say

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   October 11, 2022

In Shakespeare’s classic monologue about “The Seven Ages of Man” (from As You Like It) he ascribes the fourth Age to a Soldier, who is

“Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation, even in the cannon’s mouth.”

That metaphorical bubble is a fitting image for the attractive but ephemeral concept of “looking good” to others in general, and particularly to those whom you want to impress – although, as Shakespeare suggests, this can be carried to an unhealthy extreme.

What other people think of us has much (perhaps too much) to do with what we think of ourselves. This explains, for example, why performers keep scrapbooks for favorable reviews of their work (or why I keep a collection of my own fan-mail).

But if this applies on a personal basis, “public opinion” has far more dramatic effect on the world stage. A “celebrity” may be celebrated for good reason, but can then undergo a startling reversal of esteem with equal justification. One particular example, in my opinion, is the life of Charles Lindbergh – “Lucky Lindy.” But it was much more than luck that made him the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. And for several years after that exploit of 1927, he was, in the minds of people all over the world, the personification of modest heroism.

Then, in 1932, something tragic happened, to change his public image, and make him the object of pity, rather than of admiration. His first child, a 20-month-old baby, was kidnapped – actually taken from its cradle in the Lindbergh home – and never seen alive again, though supposedly held to ransom. Until that time, Lindbergh had been a very public figure, traveling all over the world, enjoying the adulation of crowds. But now he became a recluse, hard to reach and harder to interview.

Then came another change in his public persona. He visited Germany, where the Nazis were already in total control, and was welcomed as an aviator. He was very impressed by the German air force and came to believe that that country was unstoppable militarily. As war approached in Europe, he was one of those who felt that America must at all costs stay out of it. He became an outspoken leader of the movement called “America First.”

In the two years of war before Pearl Harbor, Americans were deeply divided, with the majority sympathizing with the British, whose country was being pounded by German bombers. Lindbergh therefore became, in his own countrymen’s eyes, something of a coward and a traitor, while his wife, no doubt with his approval, wrote a book called The Wave of the Future, which seemed to suggest that, if America entered the war, it would be on the wrong side, and doomed to defeat. Democracy was finished, and the future belonged to the new authoritarian regimes then arising.

Lindbergh continued to speak publicly on behalf of America First, right up to December 7, 1941, thereby earning his own kind of infamy. But, once America had been attacked, Lindbergh, like most anti-war Americans, had a change of heart, and, before long, he was actively participating in the war effort. He contributed his own skills, and actually served as an observation pilot in the South Pacific. Most of this was subject to wartime censorship, and the public was hardly aware of his activities.

Lindbergh lived to be 72, and engaged in many worthwhile activities, such as protecting the environment. But, although many forgave his earlier “unpatriotic” positions, the glamor of his “lone eagle” reputation never returned.

As a counterbalance to such a career, let me mention a French leader whose reputation, after two centuries, is still in dispute. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte, and he led his people for two decades through an amazing series of triumphs and disasters, without ever losing their loyalty. Although almost constantly at war, with various other powers forming coalitions against him, his numerous victories brought him glory as a military genius. Yet time and again, despite adventurous campaigns in Europe, and as far abroad as Egypt and Palestine, he suffered crushing defeats, the most disastrous being his bold invasion of Russia, which led to his “Grand Army” being forced to retreat in wild disorder, in the dead of winter. 

Yet no such debacle suppressed him for long, and he is, to this day, honored for his liberal reforms, such as the widely enforced legal system called the Napoleonic Code.

What a reputation!


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