Ben Bradlee, the late, legendary former editor of The Washington Post, was often asked why newspapers, including his own, never reported on the many sexual dalliances of his friend, president John F. Kennedy.
Mr. Bradlee would shrug and reply that times were different then. The private lives of very public figures, such as the president, were private, a distinction the news media respected. A good thing, too, for presidents whose sex lives were, shall we say, checkered.
Cultural historians might be able to pinpoint a moment when the public-private distinction for public figures began to erode. Quite likely, it occurred gradually. Today, the line is almost completely gone. The more public the person, the greater the chance that the distinction has evaporated.
We live in a celebrity-crazed world, crazed in the sense that there are so many celebrities, some genuine (for their undeniable accomplishments) but many of the faux variety. There are also a host of people who aspire to be a celebrity or simply to be around them.
The wise celebrity mixes modesty with fame, understanding that fame can be fleeting and that he or she owes that fame in part to the work of others. The best hockey player needs good teammates; the best actor needs a skilled director and a fine script; an astronaut requires a large team of others; a radio personality depends on producers, script writers and, most important, a faithful, trusting audience.
Hubris, however, has been modesty's foe since the human condition began. The pride that goeth before the fall has inspired some of literature's most enduring works and most sordid dramas.
Hubris creeps into the human condition with its soulmate, arrogance, until inside a certain kind of celebrity there can grow the sense that one rule of conduct exists for the celebrity and another for the audience. This distinction is justified in the celebrity's mind by an imaginary public-private line that the celebrity himself draws when it suits his convenience, but only then.
For the rest of the time, the celebrity is quite happy to build up his persona by talking about himself, allowing photographers into his home, chatting about this or that part of his life, grooming himself in a particular fashion, and interacting with his actual or listening public in an engaging way.
When a celebrity writes a book about himself, or does interviews in which he thrusts himself into the dialogue as being as interesting as the person interviewed, and when his employer helps build his reputation in the celebrity world of radio and television or politics, it is easy for the roar of the crowd and the smell of greasepaint to cloud the celebrity's judgment.
Not long ago (see Mr. Bradlee), a celebrity's private behaviour could be shielded by the conventions of the time – or by the power of the office, as Bill Clinton must have thought in his White House dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.
Now, however, and perhaps not always for the best, the omnipresence of television, gossip magazines, digital media, social media and the public's hunger for a good story they can understand, instead of boring stuff about international crises and domestic politics, leaves the public-private distinction one that exists only in the celebrities' own minds.
At the same time, society itself has evolved. Practices and attitudes, including sexual ones, that might have been considered appropriate, or at least not revealed, in the past are now definitely not acceptable. They never should have been, but they happened and women feared revealing them. Even now, many women harbour those fears.
But when unacceptable practices are alleged – even if they are only allegations – then chances are that others who feel aggrieved will be emboldened to advance their allegations, and the best public-relations advice the celebrity can buy will not provide sanctuary.
It is always surprising to others how a celebrity could imagine that a pattern of questionable or unacceptable private behaviour would not eventually become known – so that at the best, the cleansing of his or her reputation would be prolonged and messy, and at worst, it would bring him down completely.