Last week I wrote about the debased state of fame in America these days. This week's column, to borrow a term from Hollywood, is a prequel.
My subject, seven days ago, was HBO's announcement that it would present a documentary about Bill Clinton's old girlfriend: her life, her times, her esophageal capacities.
I never got so much mail in my life. You wrote to tell me that you, too, were appalled. You wrote to say that you, too, thought fame is now dispensed without regard to merit. You wrote in such numbers, and with such passion, that I thought you might enjoy knowing what fame used to be: what kinds of people once possessed it, what kinds of people once bestowed it.
Last week, Monica Lewinsky. This week, Benjamin Franklin. It is a long, long road.
Franklin was the first American celebrity, although his initial stage was Paris, not New York or Philadelphia. So highly regarded was Franklin by the French, whom he met on a diplomatic mission shortly after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, that men copied his attire and women styled their hair to resemble his beaver cap. Franklin's picture was hung on fireplaces in homes great and modest, and it appeared on snuffboxes, medallions and chamberpots.
There were singers in Paris at the time, but people did not know them. There were actors, but few paid attention. The celebrity was the man who had invented the lightning rod and the subscription library and bifocal glasses, who had figured out better ways for cities to treat the sick and put out fires, who had improved postal service and written Poor Richard's Almanac and founded an academy that later became the University of Pennsylvania. And who would later help to create a nation.
The celebrity, in other words, was not the man who amused the populace, but the one who enriched it. And the attitude toward fame in Franklin's day encouraged such behavior.
James Wilson, a friend of James Madison and a future delegate to the Constitutional Convention, told the students in his law classes that "virtue was born from fame and preserved by it." Said Wilson: "The love of honest and well-earned fame is deeply rooted in honest and susceptible minds."
In other words, fame was a goad to achievement, an incentive. It served, in the words of historian Garry Wills, as "a social glue, a structural element, for the republic in its early days." Some people pursued fame and tried to behave nobly toward that end; others granted it, and took pride in the fact that, by granting it wisely, they were shaping the culture, publicizing the best of all examples for their countrymen.
Wilson continued: "The love of reputation and the fear of dishonour are, by the all-gracious Author of our existence, implanted in our breasts, for purposes the most beneficent and wise."
The key phrase here is "the fear of dishonour." For if it is admirable to be known for the right reasons, it is shameful to be known for the wrong ones. It simply stands to reason. Or did, once upon a time. But no longer. "Fame" and "notoriety," which the dictionary still insists are opposites, have been synonyms now for a couple of decades. How did it happen? Who was behind it? What are the landmarks on the long, long road?
It would take a book to answer questions like these, not an Internet column. Were I to write such a book, I would include chapters called "The Decreasing American Literacy Rate," "The Decreasing American Attention Span," "The Decreasing Role of the Church in Public and Private Life," and the longest one, "The Growth of American Media and the Wantonness of Its Appetite."
Suffice it to say for now that, although Monica Lewinsky is her own fault, her notoriety is the fault of others. It is the fault of TV producers and those who watch their shows, the fault of magazine editors and those who read their pages. They, like their forebears, are shaping the culture, publicizing examples for their countrymen.
It is the worst thing that can be said about them.