Megyn Kelly, William Saroyan, Ethics, Me, And Us: A Rueful Essay

I have been following Megyn Kelly’s ongoing career crash with interest and reflection. She spurned a more lucrative contract from Fox News to jump to NBC, where she was made the star of a “Today Show” shake-up. Critics have been brutal; ratings have plunged. Reportedly celebrities refuse to be booked for interviews with her–they are all progressives, you see, and fear they will get cooties from Megyn, or something.  Conservatives are mocking her as a turncoat getting her just desserts, and the Left already hated her. She has no constituency now; literally none.

You never know; Megyn might rebound. Nevertheless, she is a cautionary tale with ethics implications. Kelly has an unusual set of skills and talents.  She is actress/model beautiful in face and physique; she is very intelligent; she has a great broadcast voice. She is a lawyer as well as a journalist, articulate, and has guts. There are many paths she could take that would make use of her abilities and achieve fame, wealth, popularity or power.

This is fortunate fortunate, but it also is a trap. Choices involve the risk of error, failure, lost opportunities and disappointment. Those who have a limited number of skills also have a limited number of choices, or none at all. There is some serenity in this. My entire professional life has been spent jumping back and forth, in and out among the many areas that interest and engage me, and in which I have had some measurable talent and success. In the end, and I am far closer to the end than the beginning, mine will be substantially a life of underachievement and waste, in great part because I never made a committed choice, or made the wrong ones.

My heroes have always been those remarkable, versatile people who somehow contrived to make major contributions to culture, society and civilization in multiple fields. Theodore Roosevelt, a historian, naturalist, and political leader. Clarence Darrow, a lawyer, writer, and philosopher. Hedy Lamarr, the sexy actress and pin-up who developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes, a bomb-sight,and whose inventions are now incorporated into modern Wi-Fi, CDMA, and Bluetooth technology. Paul Winchell, the popular ventriloquist, kids show host, and voice actor (Tigger!) who also invented medical equipment. Marlene Dietrich, who acted, sang, spied, and defied Hitler.  John Glenn, a fighter pilot, astronaut, and U.S. Senator.  Richard Gil, a tenured Harvard Professor of Economics, and a principal bass with the Metropolitan Opera Company. Michael Crichton, a  novelist, film director and MD, with the gift of philological insights. Ronald Reagan, a movie star and a President of the United States. But their path is perilous.

To some extent, I take the ethical position that each of us has an obligation to strike a reasonable balance between our own needs and desires and the best interests of society. I am troubled by lives like Mo Berg‘s, a brilliant man with a law degree, who read and spoke Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit, and yet devoted most of his professional life to doing what he loved but didn’t do all that well: play baseball. He was a major league third string catcher who in 15 years batted .243 and hit 6 home runs. Is it ethical for a great surgeon to be a professional croquet player when he could be saving lives? Is it ethical for a great composer to devote his energies to trading stocks on Wall Street, because he wants to be rich? I believe that the United States would be a far better place today if Colin Powell had run for President in 1992 0r 1996, when I believe he would have won easily. He refused, in part because his wife didn’t want him to run. I resent Powell for that; I half-believe that he had a duty to his country to make that sacrifice. Still, this country is founded on the principle that we get to make our own choices according to what we want to do. It isn’t “From each according to our abilities.”

The reverse of my versatile heroes is the more common case: the successful individuals who long to be successful at something else they have less talent for, and make themselves unhappy as they pursue an elusive dream. America’s greatest 20th Century humorist, Robert Benchley, wanted desperately to be a serious movie actor rather than play the funny, bumbling characters he portrayed so well when he wasn’t writing. Mark Twain, our greatest 19th Century  humorist, wanted to be an inventor and an entrepreneur, and drove himself into bankruptcy. Orson Welles always wanted to be a magician, and as soon as he was wealthy and famous enough, that’s what he spent most of his time doing rather than making the brilliant movies he was capable of making. There are so many other examples, and it’s one of the reasons the world doesn’t work. If people are successful doing something that comes easy to them, they too often feel it’s not a real accomplishment. They want to do something else, and until they do, they are cannot be satisfied. If they succeed, then they decide they want something else.

What’s unusual about Megyn Kelly is that what she did naturally and well was unusual, and what she evidently wanted to be isn’t unusual at all in television. Lovely, blonde, happy- talk women who can please undemanding audiences by doing softball interviews with Valerie Bertinelli and features about what dogs can wear on Halloween are a dime-a-dozen, and it can be argued that these fungible plastic stars don’t benefit our society at all. Megyn Kelly, however, wasn’t satisfied with being the preeminent, well-educated, no-nonsense conservative feminist who confronted Donald Trump about being a pig. She wanted to be Joan Lunden or Kathy Lee, so she abandoned her specialty, got a new hair style, and now isn’t helping society or herself.

In one of his short stories, William Saroyan, as he often did, relates a late-night conversation with a bartender. Saroyan is bombed, as he often was, and also depressed. He tells the bar’s attentive proprietor that he doesn’t understand why people make themselves miserable, and as a result the people around them miserable too, by being unable to accept the good in their lives, and instead obsess about what isn’t as they wish it to be. He goes on and on, and finally the bartender stops him and says—I am paraphrasing here, because I can’t find the book—

“Perhaps you are describing the feature of the human condition that causes the species to constantly take for granted what is here, attainable and now, and desperately yearn for what might be…the undiscovered paradise, the unencountered thrill, the impossible aspiration, the unexpected victory. In that insatiable need is both the curse and the redemption of our kind, leading us to innovation, self-improvement, achievement and triumph, and also to envy, disappointment, frustration, humiliation and despair. It is what it means to be human in all its glory and pain. Is that what you mean?”

“Yeah, that’s about it,” the author replies, and passes out on the floor.

Those who attack Megyn Kelly should have more respect and compassion. She may have failed, but every human being should salute and fear the instinct that led her to that failure. It is the same uniquely human instinct that dives us forward, often at great cost, but forward still.

31 thoughts on “Megyn Kelly, William Saroyan, Ethics, Me, And Us: A Rueful Essay

  1. She isn’t the first skilled person who got tired of doing what she was good at and tried to do what she thought would make her happy and fulfilled instead, and she won’t be the last. Deanna Durbin couldn’t graduate from sweet fairy tales to serious stuff, and she dropped out of sight before age 30, never to sing another note or get in front of a camera, or even give an interview, until she died. Hayley Mills tried, and failed. Crossover singer Charlotte Church decided that since she’d conquered that world, the much cooler pop world would fall just as easily, and trashed a million dollar brand that Sony had probably just about finished with anyway. All of them also essentially burned their bridges and couldn’t go back. It’s dangerous to try to play peacock when you are a dove or a crow.

  2. Isn’t there something to be said about betraying principles? I don’t know this is true, but I heard Katy Perry gave up Christian music to her current trend because she couldn’t make it in the Christian music industry. Kind of interesting to go from singing Amazing Grace (or whatever she sang) to I kissed a Girl.

  3. Your comment about Orson Welles surprises me: “Citizen Kaine” was probably the best film made up until the 1970s and “Touch Of Evil” is a fascinating film with Welles playing a corrupt cop. I also really appreciate his acting in “The Third Man” as Harry Lime who is about as evil a person as conceivable. He had a very long career and Hollywood owes him an enormous debt for the films he directed and acted in.

    • He also managed to create a radio classic with “The War of the Worlds,” several astounding theatrical productions on Broadway, like the Nazi Julius Caesar. the Voodoo Macbeth, Native Son, and the most famous guerilla theater production ever. “The Cradle Will Rock.” And he wrote and craeted “Moby Dick Rehearsed,” which is a masterpiece. But most of that, like “Kane,” happened before he was 30. He was ADD, badly, plus self-indulgent and a perpetual adolescent. He did amazing thigs, but he could have done so, so much more. Probably the most talented and versatile dramatic artist in US history.

      Simon Callow’s two-volume bio is wonderful.

  4. One of the central principles of Buddhism is “life is suffering”. Clarified, it means that conscious beings inherently have some concept of how they want the world to be that is different from how it actually is. Alternatively, if the world is already how they want it to be, either the chaos in the world will bring it out of alignment with their desires, or they will eventually become dissatisfied as their minds develop further. This is what the bartender in Saroyan’s story is referring to. It’s the existential condition; “condemned to be free”, as Sartre put it.

    Having studied desire and motivation from an existential point of view, I’ve codified eight motivations that lead people to form goals. They are based on three dichotomies: experience versus control, greater and lesser quantity, and order versus chaos.
    Greed/ambition: the desire for more control or more accomplishment (acquiring more possessions or becoming more important).
    Gluttony/celebration: the desire for more of an experience (greater intensities or more constant access).
    Wrath/boldness: the desire to break through limits by exerting control (disregarding rules or doing the impossible).
    Lust/curiosity: the desire to remove limits on one’s experiences (experiencing the unknown).
    Hubris/scrupulousness: the desire to impose limits through one’s control (absolute, perfect control over something).
    Envy/dedication: the desire to impose limits on one’s experiences (obsession or tunnel vision).
    Sloth/contentment: the desire to have less control (having responsibility or having to pay less attention).
    Cowardice/prudence: the desire to have less of an experience (avoiding pain or discomfort).

    Each of motivations, or vices, also has two attributes: intensity (advancing goals) and mobility (switching goals).

    None of these motivations are inherently good or evil. They’re the reason good and evil can exist in the first place; helping other people fulfill their motivations at your own expense is “good”, and parasitically hurting people to further your own motivations is “evil”. (There’s also “neutral”, where you’re neither generous nor parasitic, but only make mutually beneficial transactions.)

    However, a person who is addicted to any of these motivations and unable to resist it is more likely to do evil things. Additionally, if a person is motivated primarily by only one or two motivations, at least within a particular context, they’re fairly easy to predict or manipulate. (I myself am largely motivated by wrath, lust, hubris, sloth, cowardice, and to a limited extent gluttony and envy. Greed isn’t as much my thing, but I can still appreciate it.)

    Some of these motivations, and mobility attribute, go a long ways towards explaining why people would leave a sure thing for a new career. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a world that kept them from trying. We can’t really say they owe it to us to stay, at least no more than we owe it to each other to hold ourselves to increasing standards, though it would certainly be “good” of them to sacrifice their personal dreams to keep helping people by doing what they’re good at. The polymaths in your list, who apparently didn’t face that same tradeoff, would have mastered enough mindsets and been passionate about enough different things that they could focus on making great works in many fields (while making a living in at least one of them at any given time).

    Ultimately, I’d like for people to become so capable on average that it doesn’t matter much if some gifted people choose not to use their gifts. To me, the greatest tragedy is that nearly everyone is squandering their ability to make the world a better place by holding society and civilization to higher standards, refusing to tolerate complacency, and creating constructive solutions to problems. Society could be a lot better off than it is if people practiced better thinking habits. Exponentially so if people had started practicing them farther back in history.

    As for myself, I am struggling with the very concepts you describe, but I don’t quite know where I fit in your lists. I am confident that I could become fairly skilled in any one of a number of disciplines, but I don’t have the energy to be a polymath, at least without a very supportive environment. I would rather not spend my time and mental energy doing things that other people could do just as well, when I could better apply my intensity-attribute perception mindset towards changing the world so that people are more on the same page and systems work the way we would hope them to. That’s something far too few people are working on. If I accomplish it in my lifetime and have enough time left over, I may take up acting or fiction writing, or go back to the STEM disciplines.

    • What a gift, EC, the perfect compliment to my essay, which I wondered if anyone would get. But as Saroyan said, if one other human being sings your song, you haven’t lived in vain.

      Comment of the Day.

    • Another example of what Jack’s talking about: A classically trained singer does goofball comedy and then ends up more famous for singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” every year at the opening of the Indy 500.

      • A fine point: the reasons Jim Nabors sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” every year at the opening of the Indy 500 is because he was a huge star and famous in name, face, and voice well prior to being chosen to sing at Indy. I’m not too sure how you can claim that Jim Nabors become “more famous” because he sang at the Indy 500. 😉

        • How many of today’s race fans knew him as anything other than the guy who was from Indiana and sang at the beginning of the race in that weird voice? Many, many millions, I’d guess. How many decades between “Gomer Pyle” and the warm up for “Gentlemen start your engines?” Two? Three? Fame’s a funny thing.

      • It’s a two-roads-diverged-in-a-yellow-wood and road-less-traveled thing. We who live self-examined lives tend to reach an age and time when we confront ourselves with the question: “Has my life mattered? Whenever I hear my inner voice asking that, I go back to baseball – specifically, to two things: What Jesse Jackson said in his eulogy for Jackie Robinson, and Robinson’s epitaph: “A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.” Those keep me “in the game.”

        Jack: Like Robinson, in this blog alone, you have created “ripples of new possibility,” all the while being “immunized by God from catching the diseases” that you have fought, with the capacity to wear glory with grace.

        Jeez! I only know you as a blogger! I barely know anything about you as a husband, father, brother, or theater director. But what I know, I know.

        As for importance owing to impacts: Man, you’ve got it made!

    • ”Jack, you made me think of Michael Jordan playing baseball.”

      Or Ed “Too Tall” Jones boxing.

      His debut (11/05/1979) is something I remember like the back of my hand, it was interrupted by other news, something about a US Embassy in Iran being overrun.

      I was watching at my parents house as I concurrently asked my Father if I could move back home. Living in a martial arts academy at the time (in order to fulfill my dream of becoming a Tae Kwon Do instructor) and wrapping up my final semester at the U.W. weren’t working at all.

      He: “We’ll find room for you.” I borrowed the car, went back & loaded it up
      (the last time I could fit all my possessions into the back of a station wagon) and went to work.

      Anyone that says they have no regrets are either a) lying b) never challenged themselves, or c) a combination of both.

      Reminds me of a line from Don Henley’s “Heart Of The Matter”

      “What are these voices outside love’s open door
      Make us throw off our contentment
      And beg for something more?”

      • “Anyone that says they have no regrets are either a) lying b) never challenged themselves, or c) a combination of both.” Amen, Brother!

  5. Conspiracy Theory:
    The political left wanted to destroy Megyn Kelly and hut down her Conservative female voice so they concocted this plan to hire her away from Fox News with a lucrative salary making her a Conservative turncoat, give her a job on NBC where they knew their Liberal base audience would like her, let her choice “sink” herself, then the left can easily paint her as a greedy 1%’er because all she cared more about was the money than the message. This has political finger prints all over it.

    Give Megyn back her voice that the anti-Conservatives took from her…

    Megyn Kelly for President!

    It’s Monday! 😉 😉 😉

  6. Jack wrote, “In the end, and I am far closer to the end than the beginning, mine will be substantially a life of underachievement and waste, in great part because I never made a committed choice…”

    So many of us can say the exact same thing; but as Clarence Oddbody, Angel, Second Class said “You just don’t know all that you’ve done.”

    Everything we do, even the slightest things we do, can have a pebble in a pond ripple effect of change and most of the time we have absolutely no idea what those changes might be. Robert Kennedy said “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot for others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy… those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

    Jack, you have made a “committed choice” to be the pebble in the pond that creates the ripple for ethical change, that’s very honorable.

    • I am glad and grateful that you wrote that, Zoltar. “You just don’t know all that you’ve done.” I hope Jack took that to heart. He IS a national treasure. He might not be prominently known today, but he is what my company calls a “thought leader” (that might be a real trendy term all across the private sector; I don’t know), and for what I think a “thought leader” is, I’ll say it again: Jack is a national treasure. There may come a day when the nation in which he was a treasure is a nation no more. But his treasure will live on, and it will bless future nations. (Look at that! There I went, trying to be prophetic. Jack is the real prophet.)

    • Thank you for saying that, Zoltar Speaks!. That part of Jack’s post really needed to be addressed, but I couldn’t figure out quite how to do it, and I don’t think I could have said it better than you have. The best I could come up with was just referencing “Through Heaven’s Eyes” from the Prince of Egypt soundtrack. (It’s a great song, though.)

  7. Jack wrote, ” I believe that the United States would be a far better place today if Colin Powell had run for President in 1992 or 1996, when I believe he would have won easily.”

    I was talking to a friend a couple of weeks ago about that exact topic, I completely agree!

    • Jack wrote, “He refused… I resent Powell for that…”

      Regardless of how much I wanted him to run for President, I don’t have a shred of resentment towards him for not running.

      Jack wrote, “I half-believe that he had a duty to his country to make that sacrifice.”

      Making a choice to be President would effect his and his entire family’s lives in both positive and negative ways for generations to come, that’s a huge responsibility to lay at the feet of your family regardless if you yourself are willing to make the sacrifice. After about 35 years of active military service, it was probably time for it to be a family choice.

      It’s not within me to hold it against Powell for choosing family after many decades of personal and family sacrifice for the country.

  8. One way to never fail is to never try anything. One of the things I’ve learned in my checkered life. That and failure is a lot more common than success.

  9. This topic is close to my heart, so time for some confessions and public reflections.
    As I’ve previously mentioned I’m a software engineer, over a decade of experience, and modesty aside a darned good one at what I do. The main areas of work I’ve been involved in are speech recognition, accessibility and development runtimes (think along the lines of the Java runtime). It was not necessarily world transforming work, but it had an impact and passionate following by our users. Pay was good if slightly low for the experience I had, and as of late I was getting tired of the work and wanted to try something new – also, a reasonable salary increaso was not going to hurt.
    So I start my job hunt, both internally and externally. At the end it comes down to two very good offers: One working for a social media giant with at a still-to-be-determined role with extremely good pay and no clear route for advancement. The other working closer to hardware (I’m an EE but never worked on it professionally) with lower pay (still a good improvement over my previous job) at a clearly defined role with an advancement development plan and with the goal of putting people in space.
    Putting it like this it sounds like a home run, but with a family in the line – I’m a single earner with 3 kids – the financial sides is a big consideration. There were so many things to balance: money, prospects for advancement, happiness, commute time, personal fulfillment, and yes, societal value of my work. It was not an easy decision, there were difficult conversations with my wife and even more than a year later some days I wonder if this was the right call (I went with the space company, yay!)
    Seeing what Kelly is going through I could picture myself in that situation. What if in my first three months here it turned out that I had forgotten everything I knew about hardware, or if I took the other job and the tedium made me underperform in a matter of months? What if I burned out at either job because of whatever reason in or out of my control? I chose what I thought best at the time, but there are no guarantees, and as good as things are there was a risk that they would go bad. Or that they could be even better had I chosen differently?
    And then there is the better for whom? Me, my family, society? Am I overestimating the impact of my decision (maybe I’m more replaceable than I like to think)? At what point is the difference in an improvement (say financially) something that trumps other considerations? It is hard to make the right decisions, we just do our best (and thanks Jack, for keeping ethics in the forefront so they are part of the decision making process), and take the plunge. Things may go well, or they may not, but based on my experience I lean towards sympathy as my first response for someone failing after going for the more difficult choice.

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