Usually when someone is famous, it is either for doing something good, and we consider them a hero, or it is for doing something bad, and we remember them as villains. But occasionally, there are famous individuals in history who have had a heroic career followed by a disgraceful one. Three such individuals come to mind.
The first is Marechal Philippe Petain. He was the famous hero of World War I in France, leading the army to victory against the Germans. Then twenty years later, he became a collaborator with the Germans when they occupied France in World War II. He accepted their offer to become the leader of his conquered country and did their bidding. After the war, he was tried and condemned to death for collaboration, but this sentence was commuted to life in prison by General Charles De Gaulle. He died in prison.
Then I think of the great, famous Charles Lindbergh. He was, of course, the first individual to fly solo, non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean and landed to a hero’s welcome in France. Americans were proud of this courageous pioneer of flight. But subsequently, in the 1930’s, Lindbergh supported and sympathized with the Nazis, among the most evil people who have been seen on this earth, spreading their propaganda in speeches across the United States.
My third and last example is Ralph Nader. Thanks to his work, all of us now ride in safer cars and untold lives have been saved in motor accidents. He battled the big three auto companies in Detroit in a David and Goliath struggle. They used their money and power to fight him every way they could. Yet through his persistence he prevailed and changed the laws of this country and the practices of the automotive industry.
Some years later his ego drove him to a quixotic run for the presidency of the United States. There was never any chance that he could win and his presence on the ballot would damage the very causes he had always fought for. Despite pleas from the Democrats that he stay out, he insisted on running, and took 2% of the vote, most of which would have gone to Al Gore, thus giving the victory to George W. Bush, with all the attendant consequences, including two senseless wars in the Middle East, from which we are still trying to extricate ourselves.
In contrast to these three individuals, I think of one person who had a poor first act followed by a spectacular second one. I refer to former President Jimmy Carter. He seemed to blunder in everything from his withdrawal of the American team from the Olympics to the failed attempt to rescue our hostages in Iran. He even managed to be remembered for a “malaise” speech in which he never actually uttered the word “malaise.” He was dispatched from the White House after one term.
Instead of going back home to sulk, write a defensive book, sit on boards, and make a lot of money as he could have done, he then began the most remarkable part of his career which continues to this day. He founded the Carter Center to promote democracy and peace in the world. He became a monitor for elections in many countries; he spent much time in Africa on effective projects such as eradicating the guinea worm; he engaged in diplomatic missions informally on behalf of the United States government, and he wrote 27 books on a variety of topics. He did indeed give a lot of well-paid speeches, but all of the money from the speeches and the books were donated to the Carter Center to continue their good works. Today at 90 years of age he is still at it. So there you have a second act that far outshines the first.