In times such as these, I always go back to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and to a lesser degree, Martin Luther King Jr.
Since late last week, I’ve been hearing from depressed and stunned local Penn State University alumni, all of whom are trying to come to grips with a scandal the likes of which they never imagined could have enveloped their beloved alma mater.
The stronger the institution, the deeper the shock. Penn State has long been widely respected because of an image that was never tainted by the types of scandal that have impacted most schools that are home to a major college football powerhouse and an iconic figure such as Joe Paterno.
The university and Paterno have done things right on so many levels for so many people for such a long time, Penn State would be among the last places anyone would believe something so heinous could take root.
“I have two sisters that attended Penn State, one undergrad, one doctoral program, two brothers, two daughters, and four nephews. My brother is a chiropractor in State College and is an activist in the community. My sister worked there,” read an email from Flossie Chapman, a reader of The Sun News. “My heart hurts and is so sad. My passions are family, education, community. All of these have been smeared with this scandal. I love Penn State. I spend lots of time there. It is a treasured place for me. Maybe the change will come with some humility. Maybe the students will lead that charge. ‘We Are Penn State and we are sorry.’ Sounds right to me.”
Chapman’s reaction sounds about right to me. Which brings me back to Jefferson, Washington and King.
We know those men primarily because of the enormous good they’ve brought to this land. Jefferson and Washington are our most revered and well-known Founding Fathers. They risked life and limb to establish a unique democratic republic from which 308 million Americans today benefit. Several decades later, King, who eventually sacrificed his life for the cause, helped perfect what Jefferson and Washington began.
But not one of those men is without blemish.
While Jefferson and Washington fought for their own freedom, they personally enslaved hundreds. And because they did that, it gave the institution of slavery more staying power, even as both men struggled with the obvious damning contradiction.
King led a revolution that ended Jim Crow and forced this country to live up to the ideals outlined by the likes of Jefferson and Thomas. In his private life, though, he was a flawed man, with a well-documented history of extramarital affairs. And the revolution he led helped advance civil rights but in many ways cemented gender inequality.
None of those men were all good. They were men, after all, imperfect human beings like the rest of us.
The bad they participated in should never be forgotten – because everything they did matters – but neither should the good.
Not one of us knows how we would have responded had we been Jefferson or Washington. We all want to believe we are so moral we would have been able to overcome the tide of the day, a period during which slavery was accepted even by the most God-loving of men and women.
Married men who say with certainty that they would not have also succumbed to the pressures King faced are lying to themselves. High levels of testosterone and a culture that celebrated the prowess of men who can claim the conquest of many women don’t care what your morals are.
That’s why we shouldn’t forget the good Penn State has long – and always will – stand for.
That’s why we shouldn’t forget the great things accomplished by Paterno.
That’s why we don’t have to paint anyone in this scenario as a monster, not even the former assistant football coach who is accused of multiple child rapes. Despite the growing list of alleged victims, he maintains his innocence.
There is no need to feel self-righteous or to pretend any of us would have handled things better than the Penn State officials who are being harshly criticized.
But neither should we ignore the enormous harm that has been done to children and a proud institution.
And we should not lower the standards for our leaders.
We must expect them to be better, to rise to the challenge and listen to their better angels even when most everyone else wouldn’t or couldn’t.
We can’t feel so bad for Paterno that we allow his supporters to blind us to another reality, that we make men and women leaders for a reason, that the more power they wield, the more responsibility they have to uphold the highest of ideals.
We shouldn’t downplay the failures of Jefferson or Washington or King even as we love and respect them any way.
And neither should we do that for Penn State and Paterno.
That doesn’t allow us to have a tidy, perfect explanation for why even the best of us sometimes screw up.
That’s as it should be, because real life is neither tidy nor perfect.