Two years ago, Philip Roth announced, to rapt attention, that he had ceased writing fiction. Then, last May, following a sold-out appearance at the 92nd Street Y, Roth said that he would no longer engage in public readings. “You can write it down,” he said. “This was absolutely the last appearance I will make on any public stage, anywhere.”
Somehow, it is unlikely we’ve heard the last from Philip Roth. He may well have been telling the literal truth—that he will never again write fiction, nor will he continue to appear on a public platform. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be silent. He could publish fiction that he has pulled out of his trunk. He might write and print criticism. He could spout off on radio or some other nonvisual medium.
Roth’s ostensibly bald-faced disappearing act actually constitutes an increasingly popular form of personal conceit. We’re talking here about the Long Goodbye. Throughout history, many a public figure has declared his or her intention to slip back into obscurity, only to renege out of sheer egotism.
This wasn’t always the case; traditionally, these avowals have been sincere. The archetype remains Cincinnatus: The Romans brought him out of retirement and appointed him dictator to defeat the Aequians, after which he resigned to go back to his farm—all in the course of about two weeks. For good measure, he did the same thing nearly 20 years later, to put down an apparent rebellion by Spurius Maelius.
Ditto George Washington. After ceding command of the Continental Army, the Father of Our Country retreated in all earnestness to civilian life at Mount Vernon. Only the urgings of his countrymen restored him to public service as president of both the Constitutional Convention and the United States. And then it was back once again to Mount Vernon.
Other, more recent, political examples are more ambiguous. In 1951, after being relieved of command by President Truman and promising that he would “just fade away,” Douglas MacArthur embarked on what Eric Goldman called “the most substantial and noisiest fading-away in history.” But after a whirlwind of speeches and appearances, and amid speculation about his political ambitions, MacArthur did, indeed, fade away. He died, long out of the lime-light, 13 years later.
In this regard, Rudolph Giuliani comes to mind. He knew that he couldn’t legally serve a third term as mayor of New York, but, caught up in the public adulation he inspired in the aftermath of 9/11, he openly flirted with another four years. At the very least, he offered the possibility of an extended transition period in Gracie Mansion before realizing that such a move would yield only “division and litigation.”
Enter Michael Bloomberg.
Would that others might follow these leads. Following his 1960 presidential loss to John F. Kennedy and his defeat by Edmund G. “Pat” Brown in California’s gubernatorial race two years later, Richard Nixon famously declared, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” And we all know how that turned out.
Some of the most memorable grand avowals of withdrawal from the public eye have come from the world of media and entertainment. A couple of years before Nixon’s first last act, Jack Paar walked off as host of The Tonight Show over the censorship of a joke about what was then called a “water closet.” He returned a month later, to audience pandemonium, announcing, “As I was saying . . .”
Jack Paar’s turnabout probably wasn’t premeditated; he was famously high-strung and impulsive. By contrast, it’s hard to trust the motives of contemporary boldface names. These days, their retreats from view tend to be drawn-out and weasel-worded. They’re not necessarily untruthful, but they are carefully crafted to offer wiggle room that affords them the opportunity of continuing to bask in our lingering gaze.
Take Oprah Winfrey. Millions wept when she wrapped up her syndicated talk show in 2011, and she wept with them: “We won’t say goodbye,” she told her fans, and she was true to her word. Today, her namesake network, on which she is prominently featured, reaches more than 70 percent of American households with television. Another notable offender is Garrison Keillor, host of NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion, which, after a successful run, ended in 1987. Two years later, Keillor launched the remarkably similar American Radio Company of the Air. Then, after a lapse of several years, he resumed the old name of his old radio show—and has hosted its current incarnation ever since.