Tuesday, July 17, 2012


We Americans have learned some hard lessons lately about hero worship, creating cultural icons and expecting too much from our fellow humans. Exhibit A, of course, is Joe Paterno, the recently deceased former football coach at the embattled Penn State University. Paterno emerged, over decades, as the symbol of Penn State’s success, which was defined by its football program. Now we know that like many others at the university, Paterno was complicit in covering up child molestations perpetrated by one of his staff members, Jerry Sandusky. Paterno’s dead, Sandusky’s in prison, and the citizens of “Happy Valley,” PA, are left to clean up their mess. Oh, and those young boys who Sandusky molested? Well, they’re still young, but some of them are in young adulthood, and they are left to cope with what happened to them.

 In a scathing report issued by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Paterno is singled out as one among several powerful figures at Penn State who not only knew of the molestations as far back as 1998, but made a decision to do nothing about it. Paterno, with 409 career victories - the most in NCAA history among major college coaches, chose to ignore the illegality and inhumanity of Sandusky’s behavior, and simply protect the institution. Here is ESPN’s initial report regarding Freeh’s findings: Therein is the problem with heroes. Once we elevate someone to idol status, it is up to them to fight their own ego and stay on the straight and narrow, and it’s up to us to monitor their integrity. Had anyone bothered to monitor Joe Paterno’s real life, rather than the one his fans created for him, it would have been clear that he was a flawed human being, just like the rest of us. Instead, he was assigned some type of mythic status that resulted in his carrying the secrets of his complicity to the grave.

When hero worship runs amok, even low lifers like former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards are able to become symbols of the American dream. Back in 2006, when Edwards came to New Orleans to announce his candidacy, I already had my doubts about him. He went to a site in the Ninth Ward, where the recent Hurricane Katrina had done the most damage, to announce his candidacy. It was a well-orchestrated, strategic move designed to show Edwards getting down with the people. Ostensibly, Edwards was there to help rebuild a badly damaged home. Witnesses who were there say he never so much as picked up a hammer. It was a photo op only.

He announced the candidacy, got in a black SUV with heavily tinted windows and off he went. It was then I knew Edwards was not to be placed on a pedestal. Back then, a close friend of mine told me she was very impressed with Edwards and planned to support his candidacy.
I told her I did not trust him, and if I were her I would wait it out and see if he reveals more of his true self. The rest, as they say, is history. The important point here is that Edwards amassed a lot of support for his candidacy. His all-American good looks and megawatt smile were, for some voters, mesmerizing. Had there been no Hillary Clinton in the race, chances are Edwards would have amassed huge support. He was already gaining endorsements from organized labor, and his campaign appearances were rock-star like. Later, by the time the emperor (Edwards) had no clothes, campaign observers were able to shed their blind admiration for the candidate and see that he was indeed not a hero. In the National Review, writer John Geraghty said it best in a piece he wrote about the Edwards campaign: “The Edwardses warns us of the risk we take when we “fall in love” with a politician — and I don’t mean in a romantic sense, but when we conclude “I can trust that person, I know that person” based on some interviews and speeches.”

But it is not always about trust. Sometimes it is simply about a hunger for leadership, a public need for a return to civil discourse and the potential for positive change. Enter Barack Obama, whose campaign for his first term brought back memories of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election.
For my part, I believe he ran a pretty straightforward campaign, and while he said things people wanted to hear, I think he believed in what he said. The list of individuals and organizations that endorsed his candidacy is long and now legendary. And talk about a rock star – Edwards was a mere Neil Diamond next to Obama’s Springsteen. It had been a long time since a candidate had been so lionized by the voting public. After his momentous election day, he really had nowhere to go but down. And down he went. Depending upon where and what you read, Obama is currently way down in support among women, young people, Jews, even fellow Democrats. What no one seems to want to admit is that we, the voters, really set him up to fail. Nobody could have fulfilled all of the promise that we entrusted with him.

 It is the incessant need for heroes in our culture that seems to do us the most harm. And it keeps happening. Was Lance Armstrong the super-human athlete we needed him to be, or was he simply an example of better cycling through chemistry? We were the ones who decided that baseball-betting, tax-evading, umpire attacking Pete Rose
was a baseball hero. The list is never-ending: Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Anthony Weiner, Rod Blagojevich, Gary Hart, Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, and of course, our two all-time favorite disgraced heroes: O.J. Simpson and Richard Nixon. All of the above lost public support, and some of them lost their careers, all because they screwed up in spectacular fashion. Well, not “all because.” Perhaps it was partly our fault that caused these and other public figures to fall. They all exercised questionable judgment, but we decided each was way out of our league, because we needed to look up to somebody.

The moral of this story is simple: Because someone can speak or sing or throw a ball or run fast or dazzle a crowd or win football games does not make him or her bigger or better than you. And once they fail to live up to your expectations, perhaps it is best to simply acknowledge they were not perfect. Following last week’s release of the Freeh report on Penn State, Joe Paterno’s family released a lengthy statement denying its claims. Towards the end, it said, “It can certainly be asserted that Joe Paterno could have done more. He acknowledged this himself last fall. But to claim that he knowingly, intentionally protected a pedophile is false.” Although the evidence shows otherwise, there may be some truth to the statement. In fact, Joe Paterno may simply have been protecting himself, and the institution that formed the basis of his lifelong identity. In the end, he was nobody’s hero—he was just a guy who knew how to coach football.

1 comment:

Joan Eisenstodt said...

Each of these makes me sad -- and it makes me wonder if there are honest, forthright people. Oh I know there are. And yet, I see so much of what people do for power, money, prestige, etc., and wonder why.