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Even our most beloved heroes and idols sometimes say things that surprise and disappoint us. (We're looking at you, Tiger Woods.) Occasionally someone might be present to record the deed and blab it all over the world. Other times our heroes pull a Joe Biden and incriminate themselves in official speeches or letters.

With the proliferation of social media, expect that kind of thing to happen more frequently.

Of course, it's also true that some of those with great talent, wealth and promise also have rotten characteristics, sometimes openly and sometimes more disguised and overshadowed by their contributions. Here we take a brief survey through time of both groups, those movers and shakers who perhaps made a rare slipup and those who had a dark side that isn't necessarily widely known.


Mahatma Gandhi

In a letter to Hitler, Gandhi wrote: "We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents."

One of the most revered figures of the 20th century, Indian leader and holy man Gandhi championed nonviolent resistance to oppression. He led his people to freedom from British colonial rule, inspiring generations of peace and civil rights activists. But Gandhi was also human, and he held some beliefs that may surprise even his admirers.

A devout Hindu, Gandhi was dedicated to the caste system ingrained in the culture of the time -- so much so that his famous hunger strike began not to protest British atrocities, as immortalized in the Ben Kingsley movie, but actually to oppose greater rights for the lowly Untouchables caste. British doctors criticized Gandhi for allegedly letting his wife die of pneumonia, because he refused to allow her to receive penicillin, believing it to be an alien Western treatment. Yet not long after that, he gladly accepted quinine to fight his own case of malaria.

Much has been made by some critics of Gandhi's letters to Adolf Hitler. True they had a common enemy in the form of the British Empire. But the Indian leader was not nearly the Nazi sympathizer he is sometimes made out to be. In fact he wrote to Hitler only to ask him to stop his violent campaigns. Contemporary scholars argue that the respectful tone Gandhi used was both in keeping with his own emphasis on friendliness, and the fact that he wanted to appear proper, being from a developing country addressing a world leader of the time. Still, saying anything nice to or about Hitler is going to piss off a lot of people.

Even so, in the same letters to Hitler, Gandhi wrote, "But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in human friendliness. Such are your humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark."


Rev. Jesse Jackson

"That's all Hymie wants to talk about, is Israel. Every time you go to Hymietown, that's all they want to talk about."

A leading voice for civil rights, Jesse Jackson got his start in the circle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jackson has campaigned tirelessly for minority rights and other oppressed people in America and abroad, and was twice a candidate for president of the U.S. He has also not been without controversies, extra-marital relations, what some consider shameless self-promotion, and occasionally supporting unpopular positions (such as downplaying the impact of Sept. 11 and throwing environmentalists under the bus in the Everglades, in an alliance with Big Sugar).

Jackson is known to shoot from the hip, causing a sensation when a live Fox News mic picked him up saying he wanted to "cut [Barack Obama's] nuts out." Jackson eventually came out in support of the first African-American president, but his bizarre tirade and lukewarm early support suggested political rivalry. Still, it is perhaps his insensitive 1984 remarks about Jews in New York City, relying on an old slur, that are most disturbing from a civil rights figure.

Charles Darwin

"I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science."

Originally, this piece had used the following quote, but as a commenter pointed out below, it actually has been mistakenly attributed to the great scientist: "The fact of evolution is the backbone of biology, and biology is thus in the peculiar position of being a science founded on an improved theory, is it then a science or faith?" In fact this is a misworded quote from L. H. Matthews, writing in an introduction to Origin of Species (and writing "unproved" not "improved.")

Darwin did write the first quote about "true science," though it is not the smoking gun many creationists might hope. Instead, in a letter to a colleague, Darwin was discussing a particular detail that he didn't have much evidence on, not a central tenet of evolution.

In fact Darwin was a highly thoughtful person, who contributed some wonderful quotes on a variety of subjects. "A man's friendships are one of the best measures of his worth," he once said. Darwin also struggled with self-doubt and wavering confidence in his own abilities. ("It has been a bitter mortification for me to digest the conclusion that the 'race is for the strong' and that I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in science.") He was also dismayed by the popular outrage to his work: "We can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universes, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act," he said.

James Madison

"Democracy is the most vile form of government ... democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."

With the legacy of the Cold War and the rise of modern terrorism, it would seem unthinkable to hear a U.S. president wax so negative about democracy, something all Americans are expected to cherish and support spreading through the world. But the fourth president of the country, and a bona fide Founding Father, dropped a heck of a bombshell.

Madison had been a key leader in Congress, where he drafted many of our early laws. He was largely responsible for the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and is often called the "Father of the Bill of Rights." Madison was afraid of a tyranny of the majority, which is why he was so dedicated to checks and balances and guarantees of individual rights. It's perhaps not surprising that a leader would be opposed to unfettered democracy, but in the language of modern politics few mainstream politicians can be so honest.

George Washington

"What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ." -- in a speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs, May 12, 1779

In today's heated debate over separation of church and state, it would seem unthinkable for a president to argue that Christianity -- or any religion -- would be the basis for all public education. (Then again, we did just come through the Bush administration.)

Of course, the 18th century was a different era, but it may still surprise people to learn that one of the great fathers of our nation was so dedicated to religious thinking.

Ty Cobb

"Sure, I fought. I had to fight all my life just to survive. They were all against me. Tried every dirty trick to cut me down, but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch."

Ty Cobb, known as "The Georgia Peach," is often remembered as one of the greatest ever to play the game of baseball. The Hall of Famer and multiple-record holder also had a savage temper and a dark past, marinated in his poor, rural South upbringing and probably worsened by the fact that his mother fatally shot his father.

Cobb bragged to have killed a would-be mugger. (The facts aren't too clear.) He was constantly getting into fights with people of all races and walks of life, once even beating his son with a bullwhip after receiving news of poor college performance -- though it's true that a number of his attacks seemed to have been racially motivated. Cobb once climbed into the stands and savagely beat a disabled spectator who had called him a "half-n*****," even though the man essentially had no hands. Cobb was also sued by a black chambermaid, who said she was hospitalized with serious injuries after the ball player savagely beat her. Apparently Cobb thought she had acted "uppity" after he called her by a racial slur.

In a well-publicized case Cobb slapped a black elevator operator, also apparently for being "uppity." When a black night watchman intervened, Cobb pulled out a knife and stabbed him. The matter was settled out of court, but in response to the incident an unrepentant Cobb uttered the quote above.

As he aged Cobb seemed to mellow out, and he did support integrating baseball before the process was complete. He showed admiration for accomplished black ballplayers and eventually tried to distance himself from racism.

Mother Teresa

"I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing -- direct murder by the mother herself."

In the process of becoming a saint since her death in 1997, Mother Teresa is often cited as the humanitarian people most admire. To be sure, she devoted her life in service to the bitterly poor of Calcutta. But she also had a darker side, according to some critics.

In her Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, Mother Teresa indicted abortion as the most evil force in the world. While, of course, the practice is highly controversial and is officially opposed by the Catholic Church, it requires a fanatical fixation on it to believe it worse than aggressive wars, genocides, brutal dictators and perhaps even poverty. In fact a number of observers have argued that Mother Teresa herself could be considered at least partly responsible for the spread of AIDS and the perpetuation of poverty, since she strongly opposed any efforts to promote contraception or population limits.

Noted Mother Teresa critic Christopher Hitchens said, "It was by talking to her that I discovered, and she assured me, that she wasn't working to alleviate poverty. She was working to expand the number of Catholics. She said, 'I'm not a social worker. I don't do it for this reason. I do it for Christ.'" While it is perhaps unfair to criticize the motivations behind her charitable work, it is also probably not what her secular admirers would want to hear. Recent critics have also alleged that Mother Teresa's use of donated funds wasn't always transparent, and that she shouldn't have spoken positively of Haiti's corrupt Duvalier since she had accepted money from his family.

Abraham Lincoln

"That the Writ of Habeas Corpus is suspended in respect to all persons arrested, or who are now, or hereafter during the rebellion shall be, imprisoned in any fort, camp, arsenal, military prison, or other place of confinement by any military authority by the sentence of any Court Martial or Military Commission." -- official presidential proclamation

During the troubled early days of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared martial law. In 1861 he ordered the suspension of the constitutionally protected right to the writ of habeas corpus for Maryland and parts of the Midwest. (Meaning suspected enemies of the state could be picked up and put in jail indefinitely, without being charged with a crime or even informed of what the charges were.) After a Maryland secessionist was arrested, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger B. Taney defied Lincoln and demanded that the man be brought before his court. The military refused to honor the writ, prompting the judge to rule Lincoln's order unconstitutional. Yet the president ignored that and denied captured Americans their rights anyway.

On Sept. 24, 1862, President Lincoln issued the proclamation that suspended the right to writs of habeas corpus nationwide. It is perhaps shocking to learn that one of our greatest leaders was willing to set aside the very Constitution he was charged with defending, even during war.