From DiMaggio to Sanford: Where Did Dignity Go?

The other day,  re  Mark  Sanford’s self-flagellation tour, I wrote:

He has become the Britney Spears of American politics, his self-destruction enabled by hordes of media leeches who dish the garbage to the mob. If there was any remaining line of demarcation between the sleazy tabloid media and the supposedly serious media, this all but erases it, along with the antiquated ideas of honor and shame.

In a thoughtful column today, NY Timesman David Brooks outlines some of the causes of the decline of dignity.

First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents. Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings. Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession. Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.

Brooks also names some public figures whom we still respect because of their dignity–among them Martin Luther King Jr., Tom Hanks, and Joe DiMaggio. Of these, I think DiMaggio was the quintessential dignified man.

What do we mean when we say DiMaggio had dignity? We mean, I think, that he insisted on limits and borders. He was willing to live his professional life in the great fishbowl of Yankee Stadium, but he would never give everything of himself to the fans. They had a right to see him play great baseball; they had no claim on  him beyond that.  Unlike so many of today’s celebs, he did not sell every part of himself to the highest bidder. He  did not natter on publicly as if his opinions on politics and social issues carried weight. Unlike the Hollywood mouths of today, DiMaggio may have realized that he didn’t know much except baseball and therefore had little to say about matters beyond his grasp. That’s humility, another quality, like dignity, that has left the building.

DiMaggio’s dignity forced him out of the game while he was still a young man. The   moment he knew his skills were slipping, he retired. His dignity, his proud sense of himself, would not let him become  a has-been hanging on for another paycheck. He had always given the public his best. That was the deal. If he could not give the best, he would not give at all.

Can you imagine the money DiMaggio  could have gotten from a book–make that a magazine article–about his life with Marilyn Monroe?  (Granted, large elements of the 50s-early 60s public would have scorned him for such revelations, because they, unlike us, still knew that confidences should not be betrayed for  entertainment and money.) But he never gave the public a single tidbit about her.  Later in life, when reporters hounded him, he said no even to respected writers like Gay Talese for Esquire.

All this helps to explain–yes, we’re dating ourselves now–the shock and disbelief when DiMaggio did  the Mr. Coffee commercials in the 1970s. He needed the money, apparently, having not made the gigantic fortune that a .227-hitting utility infielder can make today, but many of his admirers never forgave him for hitting the pitchman circuit.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if DiMaggio never forgave himself. Near the end of his life he may have traded some of his dignity for cash. But at least he had something to trade.

Check Brooks’ full piece here if you like.


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