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They all fall down - Daniel Silliman

They all fall down - Daniel Silliman

I heard about it in a hush: scandal, disgrace, fallen leaders.

I was, I think, 7. We left the church abruptly. I was in Sunday School and Dad was there, suddenly there, even though we'd just started and the teacher with giant, brown freckles all over her arms was opening up bottles of finger paint and looking up at the man in the doorway, surprised. And I was surprised and Dad said we were leaving.

He told me later. He told me quietly, just in case I ran into my friends, the sons of the leaders who'd fallen to temptations of power and sex, so I'd know what was wrong.

He didn't tell me a lot of details, but gave me just a vague list of the charges, and even now, even after hearing more when I was older and knew what things like "adultery" meant, I don't really know what happened. The narrative kind of all loops together and I think I've crossed a couple of church scandals into a single story in my head.

It was told in a hush and has existed for me as an undercurrent - like the sound of an air conditioner when you're sleeping.

It didn't devastate me, to hear the leaders had done what they'd done, had fallen like they'd fallen. I guess I didn't particularly idealize them.

That happened later, the idealization and the devastation that comes with finding out the truth of the children's song, "We all fall down." The first time I heard of such falling, it was just a warning.

I'm always a little surprised to hear people talk about how horrified they were to learn about Nixon's crimes. By the time I was learning about politics, the idea that "the people deserve to know that their president is not a crook" had fully transformed to "people ought to assume their president is a crook, and a pervert, a degenerate, and at the very least, an ego-maniac."

Party distinctions, by the 1990s, were distinctions between scandals. If you thought one set of deeds was dastardly and scandalous, you were a Republican. If you were outraged by another set, you were a Democrat.

Both sides of the country were outraged, though. Which is odd, when you think about it. You think we'd all be cynical by now. You'd think we would have just gotten to the point where we stop being surprised, let down.

But we keep idolizing people. We keep getting shocked when we find ourselves looking below the surface at the slimy, bubbling goo of their character, even though we've seen this muck before.

On the radio, the protesters chanted. Protesting in support of Michael Vick, the disgraced Falcons quarterback who pleaded guilty to being a party to dogfighting and the brutal killing of dogs, they chanted, "We all make mistakes. We all make mistakes."

It seems like the sentiment is meant to spin us toward the conclusion that "mistakes" shouldn't be taken so seriously, but we do take them seriously.

Maybe we weigh them against what we thought of what the person was doing, or maybe we decide if we like the person pointing out the mistake -- but it still matters.

Maybe the claim that Ghandi beat his wife doesn't outweigh the fact that he taught peaceful resistance, and maybe the widely reported claims that Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., slept around doesn't make the Declaration of Independence and the Civil Rights movement worthless. But, dear God, it certainly leaves us with nothing but mere mortals, making mistakes and messing up, walking around all stained and spotted, sometimes petty and pathetic.

We take mistakes seriously because we wanted better. We want upstanding leaders. We want fathers who are better than men. We want someone who isn't carrying around that pocket full of posies and just waiting, ashes, ashes, to fall down like the rest of them.

We want heroes, but John Wayne's real name is Marion Morrison and the Pope was reportedly once a Nazi.

Freud says the original suppressed thought, the thing so terrible we had to cover it up, was that we wanted to kill our fathers and sleep with our mothers. Maybe, though, we wanted our fathers to be bigger than life, wanted them to be good men, and instead, we walked into the tent, like the sons of Noah, to find the father drunk and naked.

I was older when I found a tape. I don't know what I was looking for, but I found it and I played it and I heard my father confessing his sins.

They weren't spectacular sins. They weren't original sins, but I listened to them on the tape and I heard my father falling, crashing down until he was just another messed up man.

Daniel Silliman covers crime and courts for the Clayton News Daily. His column appears on Tuesdays. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 254 or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.