Public heroes

I’ve written before about imperfect heroes, super public figures we've admired only to discover their feet of clay, personal or professional. Once in a while, we think we've found the perfect hero — Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., recently Nelson Mandela. Often we are chastened by revelations that are inconsistent with his or her presumed perfection. Is perfection a naive notion?

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I'm reminded of the subject, reading Ted Koppel’s NPR interview that suggests Mandela's widely acclaimed — and deserved — perfection might have been because he was imprisoned for 27 years in mid-maturity and thus kept from the common inevitable wrongdoings that might have sullied his assumed perfection. For almost three decades he was hidden from opportunities and scrutiny that often turns perfect heroes into mere fallible mortals. That is a curiously cynical and self-defeating idea because we won't ever know what might have been the case had his life been different. More importantly, even if he might have sinned (who has not?), would that fact have changed the reality of his remarkable accomplishments?

Perhaps we must simply recognize heroic acts, such as Mandela’s, for what they are and, like Oskar Schindler, discount the imperfections. In Mandela’s words, “I’m not a saint unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Goldfarb is a Washington, D.C., and Miami-based attorney and author. His book Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes has been optioned for a movie.