It was the opening question at the final presidential debate between Vice President Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis in October, 1988. CNN Moderator Bernard Shaw asked, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis was raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Nearly forty years later, I well remember the question; how sudden and harsh it was. What little I remember of Governor Dukakis’ response was that it was a word salad – technical and dispassionate. His contorted face and the monotone of his voice suggested that he was determined not to show the least bit of emotion, even at the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife. Perhaps he had learned that any display of vulnerability would be a political kiss of death, which it had been sixteen years earlier for Presidential candidate Edmund Muskie, when he shed some tears at a press conference in snowy New Hampshire while defending his wife whose character had been trashed by the Manchester Union Leader. Muskie’s quest for the presidency stalled and eventually ended, and most pundits trace the campaign’s failure to his display of vulnerability.
To my mind, Michael Dukakis’ attempt to project an air of invulnerability was more damaging to his candidacy than what became a ubiquitous picture of him wearing an oversized helmet while riding in a tank. He was branded as a technocrat, out of touch with the reality of life. It worked; Dukakis was soundly defeated.
I am convinced that the main reason Donald Trump continues to remain the front runner for the Republican nomination is because he maintains a posture of absolute invulnerability. And that he preys, if not feasts, on the vulnerability of others. He can do that because he outwardly insists that he is not vulnerable. That he is always right. That he is on top of it all. There is something about that certainty and swagger that is magnetically attractive; because so many of us wish that we might be that invulnerable.
But we are not.
The changes, chances and challenges of life inevitably and inexorably render us vulnerable. All of us. And we often fight that vulnerability. We wish we weren’t. It can be comforting to line up behind someone whose exterior appears to be impregnable. As a boy, I read every Superman comic book I could find. The “Man of Steel” was my hero, although his luster faded a bit when I learned how vulnerable he was to kryptonite. Achilles, the Greek hero, was made invincible when his mother dipped her newborn son into the River Styx, except for his heel, which she held out of the water. It was the only portal into his vulnerability – his “Achilles heel”. No one, real or imagined, is exempt.
There have been times in my life when I have tried to deny my vulnerability; that I was emotionally invincible. It has always been an exercise in delusion. What happens in those misguided moments is that I not only become disconnected from my true self, but my arrogance causes me to be more willing to engage in vengeance. How dare someone try and undermine or attack my fortified sense of self? They need to be dismissed, demeaned, or even destroyed.
Vengeance has never worked. Journalist Thomas Friedman quotes Confucius (551-479 BC) in a recent column: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves – one for your enemy, and one for yourself.” Ultimately, the avenger and the avenged both lose.
Revenge and vengeance are on full display in the ongoing war between Hamas and Israel. There is some acknowledgement of vulnerability – but only for the people who have been killed, wounded or displaced. The perpetrators, on both sides, maintain a posture of invulnerability, which in turn, helps to justify their ongoing acts of vengeance. It is a vicious and lethal cycle.
Between the violence in Ukraine and Hamas/Israel (not to mention countless other arenas of violent conflict around the world), and the verbal violence that floods the halls of Congress and overwhelms various media outlets. It is open season for vengeance and revenge, which end up being prescriptions for continued isolation from one another.
Vulnerability is a corrective. It is also a path – toward greater understanding, hope and justice. Vulnerability opens us up to the possibility of seeing ourselves as partners in humanity rather than adversaries who need to be defeated. Acknowledging our own Achilles heel, (and most of us have more than one) is an antidote. Our vulnerability marks us as human. Our vulnerability can transform the various word salads we toss in response to challenging questions and situations – and can strengthen our integrity, and bolster our character.
And can have an impact beyond ourselves.