The movie trailer below is for the upcoming move Jackie, about the life of Jacqueline Kennedy. The trailer sets before us the question of what should be exposed and what should remain private in the lives of public figures.
We came to learn, well after John F. Kennedy’s death, that he was quite the womanizer. Although most of the White House press corps was aware of this, it was not reported. Franklin Roosevelt’s palsy was also not publicized; in fact, photographs were taken at angles specifically designed to conceal it. There are many other examples of significant issues in the private lives of public figures that were not disclosed at the time.
Was the past tendency to filter out this sort of information right or wrong? Was it discretion or deception? Is there a limit to the people’s “right to know” or is this right absolute? What issues in the moral lives of our leaders should and should not be disclosed? How public or private should their medical records be?
The trailer depicts a (likely fictional) conversation between Jacqueline Kennedy and a reporter shortly after the death of President Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy remarks, “People like to believe in fairy tales.” The reporter comments, “People need their history. They need to know that real men actually lived here.” Mrs. Kennedy responds, “I’ve grown accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be real.”
The trailer (and I suppose the film) places before us this difficult question: What should and should not be revealed about the lives of public figures?
As a Catholic priest, I observe a great deal of discretion. Many people come to me, not only in confession but also in counseling, and tell me things that I have no business repeating to others. To the degree I am able, I strive to forget what happens in such settings. Discretion and confidentially are critical to counseling, and absolute secrecy is required regarding the Sacrament of Confession. I am comfortable with these boundaries.
Many, however, believe discretion to be a thinly veiled form of hypocrisy. The current thinking seems to be that the public’s right to know is all but absolute. There is a demand for medical records, school records, and other private matters to be disclosed. It is considered respectable journalism to interview people who may have had bad or sinful interactions with public figures, even going back decades. Tell-all books are treated as appropriate reading material, often becoming bestsellers.
I’m not so sure that all of this is helpful. In fact, the public disclosure of highly personal information by the public figures themselves strikes me as a form of immodesty. It is also a strange way to get attention. Prying into the lives of public figures seems to be an example of sinful curiosity at the very least. Reputations are important. Harming someone’s reputation ought not to be done except for a very serious reason. None of us has a spotless record and most of us have done things that we would not want revealed to any but God.
How much is too much? How far is too far? What knowledge does a person (a voter, for example) really need in order to make a proper evaluation? I don’t have a precise answer, but count me among those who find our current norms too intrusive, harsh, and indiscreet.
Is there a drawback to my view? I’m sure that there are many. The discretion exercised in the past is now seen as a reason to be cynical about historical public figures. There may also seem to be varying standards. Why are the private lives of some public figures disclosed while others seemingly get off scot-free?
Despite this, I remain dubious about the value of so much private information being made public; I prefer greater discretion. It may be that many or even most public figures have some less-than-desirable things in their past, even in their present. But that is even more reason to pray for them. Nothing is hidden from God, but do I need to know the details? Often, I do not.
What do you think?