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.