Such an incredible, fleeting CNN screenshot — across the top, “Breaking News,” we learn that the steroid scoundrels Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds won’t be in the Baseball Hall of Fame any time soon. And then there’s the name Lance Armstrong in red, a link to so much fraudulent infamy of cycling and the public trust.
And there, in the middle of the page, in that pose that people of a certain age remember all too well (grab your tie-dyes and marching boots, boomers, heeeee’s baacckkkk!) the King of All Cover-Ups, the Watergate original, the man whose fall from grace and the presidency embodied all of the reasons why people think public officials cannot be trusted — Richard M. Nixon.
Nixon, Armstrong, Sosa, Clemens, Bonds. A full slate for the Liars’ Hall of Shame. Nixon lost the presidency. Armstrong lost 7 Tour de France Titles. Sosa, Clemens and Bonds lost their first shot at the Hall of Fame. But more than what they lost for themselves, the deceit that each name evokes symbolizes how much the actions of each man diminished their supporters, their fans, their nation.
“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you…”
Paul Simon wrote those lyrics 45 years ago, in 1968, as part of the song “Mrs. Robinson” for the movie The Graduate starring Dustin Hoffman. (Feeling old enough, yet? That was back when Simon was half of Garfunkel, and Hoffman — who just picked up one of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievements — could play a convincing recent college graduate.)
The lyrics evoked the nation’s longing for heroes unsullied at a time when the nation was torn by political strife, civil rights battles, Vietnam protests and campus unrest. As Simon later explained to the baseball great DiMaggio, himself, and in a 1999 op-ed in the New York Times when DiMaggio died,
“He was the antithesis of the iconoclastic, mind-expanding, authority-defying 60’s… The fact that the lines were sincere and that they’ve been embraced over the years as a yearning for heroes and heroism speaks to the subconscious desires of the culture. We need heroes, and we search for candidates to be anointed.
“Why do we do this even as we know the attribution of heroic characteristics is almost always a distortion? Deconstructed and scrutinized, the hero turns out to be as petty and ego-driven as you and I. We know, but still we anoint. We deify, though we know the deification often kills, as in the cases of Elvis Presley, Princess Diana and John Lennon. Even when the recipient’s life is spared, the fame and idolatry poison and injure. There is no doubt in my mind that DiMaggio suffered for being DiMaggio.
“We inflict this damage without malice because we are enthralled by myths, stories and allegories. The son of Italian immigrants, the father a fisherman, grows up poor in San Francisco and becomes the greatest baseball player of his day, marries an American goddess and never in word or deed befouls his legend and greatness. He is ”the Yankee Clipper,” as proud and masculine as a battleship.
“When the hero becomes larger than life, life itself is magnified, and we read with a new clarity our moral compass.” (Paul Simon, “The Silent Superstar,” New York Times, March 9, 1999)
Today, as the Baseball writers of America took the remarkable step of electing nobody to the Hall of Fame this year, we have yet another painful reminder that sports “heroes” are often deeply flawed men (almost always men) who we put on pedestals they may not really deserve. We invest so much — too much — meaning and commitment in men who play games (RG3, anyone?) and then we feel, somehow, let down, bereft, unhappy when they prove to be just mere mortals who do stupid or wicked things to get ahead — just like other people sometimes do.
Nixon’s deceit was at another whole level, of course, and yet, in the end, he was brought down by his cover-up of the “third rate burglary” at the Watergate. Nixon might have been remembered as a great president for some of his achievements (opening China, founding the EPA, promoting progressive social legislation) despite his failings (expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia, treating war protesters as anti-American agitators, which encouraged fatal law enforcement incidents like Kent State). But any good that Nixon might have achieved disappeared in the dark cloud of shame and moral failure that forced his resignation and long denouement into obscurity as he tried to reclaim shreds of his once-ambitious agenda.
Cheaters never prosper. We taunt that on the schoolyard, we hear lectures against lying and cheating in school, we use every tool available to try to teach students about the importance of ethics and integrity.
And yet, in each passing season, we see scandalous examples of the ways in which prominent people lie and cheat, and we see the devastating consequences of fraudulent behavior.
Today’s screenshot is already history, replaced with some new headlines as I write. But the moral challenge is unchanging, and we try to teach this each day in our Honor System at Trinity: cheaters might have some short-term wins, but in the end, there is no substitute for an integrated life of honor and integrity.