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In Search of Celebrity

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It happens every few years or whenever John Hinckley makes the news again. You may remember the name, unfortunately. He's the wannabe Lee Harvey Oswald who almost killed a president of the United States. And a great president of the United States at that. If he'd succeeded, he might have changed the course of 20th-century history, whether we're talking about the end of the Cold War (and the Soviet Union with it) or the revival of the American economy and American pride with it.

Luckily, John Hinckley failed. But just barely. Although he didn't even graze Ronald Reagan's spirit. Looking at Nancy's worried face in the emergency room, the ever-chipper president came up with an explanation for what had happened, borrowing a line from Jack Dempsey after the Tunney fight: "Honey, I forgot to duck."

Now his would-be assassin is up for parole again. Correction: He doesn't get a parole hearing, but a periodic sanity hearing. For he's not in jail but in the nation's premier mental hospital/prison: St. Elizabeth's in Washington. That's where we put the country's most prominent crazies when we can't think of anything else to do with them.

St. Elizabeth's is where the poet Ezra Pound was confined after broadcasting for Mussolini during the Second World War, and allowed to go on scribbling his verses/cantos. Try him for treason? Really now. This isn't Franco's Spain or Stalin's Russia, where poets were shot. And then only if they were good enough.

St. Elizabeth's is our version of Sovpsychiatry. In the end times of the Soviet empire, subversive types were sentenced to therapy. For they had obviously lost touch with reality, being unable to see that they were actually living in a workers' paradise.

And so bearded old Ezra, instead of being hanged from a sour apple tree, was dispatched to St. Elizabeth's. For if he was a traitor, he was also an artist, and so entitled to Modern Enlightened America's version of the medieval benefit of clergy.

Naturally enough, John Hinckley would wind up there, too. A jury found him innocent by reason of insanity, and you can't very well execute a crazy man. On the other hand, much of the public was outraged by the jury's decision, and so was the country's sense of justice. So what do you do with him? You can't just let an aspiring assassin go. Which would be as scandalous in its own way as executing him.

And that's why we have a St. Elizabeth's. It's all worked out well. Mr. Hinckley even gets to pay his mother 10-day visits now and then in quaint Williamsburg, Va. It's the practical, humane, politic solution.

The latest 80-page report on the patient's condition indicates that he still suffers from a widespread American malady: an insatiable hunger for fame. Fame no longer being on offer in contemporary America, he'd settle for celebrity. The always perceptive historian/sociologist Daniel Boorstin defined celebrity as being well known for one's well-knowness. Rather than for any particular talent.

Or as Mr. Hinckley told his doctor, "I would like to be known as something other than the would-be assassin." That's understandable. John Wilkes Booth always wanted to be a famous actor like his brother Edwin, too. But that's not the first thing that may come to mind when his name is mentioned in the history books.

For his part, John Hinckley would like to be known for his paintings, usually landscapes. That's bloody likely, too. It'd be like a collector's wanting one of A. Hitler's landscapes because of its beauty rather than the notoriety of its painter.

But if John Hinckley is sick rather than criminal (why not both?), his sickness is widely shared by his countrymen. Doesn't every American have a day job that lets him pursue his true vocation in his off-hours? Like writing the Great American Novel or leading a rock-and-roll band out in the garage. There's no harm in it. What a pity John Hinckley didn't stick with painting by the numbers instead of taking up assassination.

Call it the Hinckley Syndrome. What's the use of our art unless we're well known for it? It goes with the vapid expansion of the public sphere in American life and the shrinkage of private life, the diminution of home and family life in contrast with the hunger for celebrity. And now everybody can be a star on his or her own Facebook page, where you don't have to put up with other people at all, but can pose alone. And, like John Hinckley, become well known.

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