If there’s been a consistent narrative to this year and every other in this decade, it’s that most of us, Bernanke included, have been so easily bamboozled. The men who played us for suckers, whether at Citigroup or Fannie Mae, at the White House or Ted Haggard’s megachurch, are the real movers and shakers of this century’s history so far. That’s why the obvious person of the year is Tiger Woods. His sham beatific image, questioned by almost no one until it collapsed, is nothing if not the farcical reductio ad absurdum of the decade’s flimflams, from the cancerous (the subprime mortgage) to the inane (balloon boy).
As of Friday, the Tiger saga had appeared on 20 consecutive New York Post covers. For The Post, his calamity has become as big a story as 9/11. And the paper may well have it right. We’ve rarely questioned our assumption that 9/11, “the day that changed everything,” was the decade’s defining event. But in retrospect it may not have been. A con like Tiger’s may be more typical of our time than a one-off domestic terrorist attack, however devastating.
Indeed, if we go back to late 2001, the most revealing news story may have been unfolding not in New York but Houston — the site of the Enron scandal. That energy company convinced financial titans, the press and countless investors that it was a business deity. It did so even though very few of its worshipers knew what its business was. Enron is the template for the decade of successful ruses that followed, Tiger’s included.
What makes the golfing superstar’s tale compelling, after all, is not that he’s another celebrity in trouble or another fallen athletic “role model” in a decade lousy with them. His scandal has nothing to tell us about race, and nothing new to say about hypocrisy. The conflict between Tiger’s picture-perfect family life and his marathon womanizing is the oldest of morality tales.
What’s striking instead is the exceptional, Enron-sized gap between this golfer’s public image as a paragon of businesslike discipline and focus and the maniacally reckless life we now know he led. What’s equally striking, if not shocking, is that the American establishment and news media — all of it, not just golf writers or celebrity tabloids — fell for the Woods myth as hard as any fan and actively helped sustain and enhance it.
The most lethal example, of course, were the two illusions marketed to us on the way to Iraq — that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and some link to Al Qaeda. That history has since been rewritten by Bush alumni, Democratic politicians who supported the Iraq invasion and some of the news media that purveyed the White House fictions (especially the television press, which rarely owned up to its failure as print journalists have).
Now look: I'm no historian, but I'm pretty sure that by most reckonings The Naughts were more than a year-and-a-half old when 9/11 Changed Everything, and that much of that time had been given over to a Presidential campaign which was decided on the pressing issues of Al Gore's make-up, Al Gore's sighing, Al Gore's choice of suits, and Al Gore's outlandish claims that he 1) invented the Internet; 2) personally cleaned up Love Canal; 3) wrote, directed, and starred in that Love Story piece of shit, which was based on his cleaning up Love Canal while in college; and 4) did not enlist in the Army, and go to Vietnam, just to show George W. Bush up. And even though there is as yet no historical consensus on whether these matters were Total Fucking Bullshit or simply So Mother-Fucking Trivial as to Bugger Belief, there is no question that among their most ardent champions was one Frank Rich, Times Opinionator.
So do go on, Frank, with that "the television press has rarely owned up to its failure" routine. I can't tell you how fascinating I find that observation, coming as it does in the middle of a piece which ignores your own responsibility for setting this piece of shit decade in motion.
Because, fuck, Frank, teevee news is nothing more than a less-popular version of So You Think You Can Sing Like a Fifth-Grader? It may not have apologized for wrapping Bush's Iraq Adventurism in Old Glory, but then the worst War Whoredoggery on FOX can't have measured one-third the way up Judith Miller's contribution. Print media has a helluva lot to apologize for, Frank. And furthermore, I don't recall authorizing anybody to accept those apologies in my name. And, what's more, I don't.
No, "We" didn't willingly suspend disbelief, the better to enjoy the story. "You" did, and lots of "Us" were begging you to stop. Shock and revenge may have been natural reactions to 9/11. Shock and Awe was a wholly manufactured one. There may've been perfectly good reasons why thinking adults should have abandoned thinking because they "didn't want to question their leaders"--I'll leave that to you folks and your personal experience of the phenomenon--but there's no excuse for the Press having done so. And there was an entire year of Bush administration "hyping misleading intelligence", which, truth be told for once, wasn't as much misleading as "obviously fanciful and at the service of a pre-conceived war plan designed for transparently political ends". What exactly was it supposed to take to get you to snap out of your reverie? (Maybe what it appears to have taken, namely, the total collapse of Bush administration popularity?)
And it's not just the creative excision of Campaign 2000 from the Official Rundown of Shit That Went Wrong in the Naughts, itself an exercise in self-absolution; it's the suggestion that it's just a matter of a couple Bad But Understandable habits we "all" fell into in this particular decade. Television gave up covering news in the 1970s, Frank. The remainder of the Press agreed to sit quietly in its chairs and wait for Ronald Reagan to call on his pre-arranged questioners shortly thereafter. Our newspapers looked like the tabloid press for two decades; now they look like local shopping fliers. We have, in the meantime, gone from the post-Industrialized country with the world's most deceptive and corrupt financial and advertising practices to the post-Industrialized country with the world's most deceptive and corrupt financial and advertising practices which have their own major political party as a defense team.
Fer chrissakes, Tiger Woods didn't suddenly expose (or reinforce) the ugly hidden truth about ourselves (which somehow we'd only managed to glimpse in wildly popular boob tube excrescences) when fate revealed his hobbyist collection of cocktail waitresses. Tiger Woods "exposed" that truth by being an endorsement magnet, same as Sam Waterson advising people on financial planning, or Pat Boone on acne treatments, or Wallace Reid on quality sock garters. Whatever our Deep Dark Secret is, Tiger Woods selling automobiles, after shave, and brokerage houses ain't it. If his image didn't work on a gullible public he'd have been out on his ass with or without a notarized certificate of virginity in his back pocket; if it wasn't already certain just from talent alone that he'll be back birdieing 17 at Augusta, and being hosannahed for it, when the same Press now sniffing his underwear drawer returns its collective nose Back Where It Belongs, Woods would already have announced his entry into rehab, his sudden religious conversion, or his upcoming Pay Per View wrestling match with Danny Bonaduce. You can't talk about this shit as though it has real meaning anymore, because it doesn't. Whose fault is that? Maybe the same people who couldn't be bothered pointed out that a fully functional Iraqi nuclear program posed no real threat to us, on account'a everybody really wanted the President to do well.
And whose fucking image was it, anyway, Frank? Woods was rather famous for on-course exhibitions of anger and outbursts of profanity that never made televised coverage, while Long John Daly could get arrested for wearing a loud shirt. Either that's selective enforcement, or it's outright protection of the Investment. Am I supposed to feel sorry now that the people trying to cash in got rooked? What promise did Tiger Woods make you or me? Never to three-putt? How do major national advertisers--how does Accenture, fer chrissakes, which, if you don't know, is the shit Arthur Andersen, LLP, left in the bottom of the pot that nobody rinsed out--come to be guarantors of personal merit? I don't trust them to do their own jobs. On occasion I trust some of them to install my brakes, hold my money, or distill my whiskey, but the possibility of failure due to sub-standard materials, shady dealing, or the inclusion of anti-freeze as a cost-cutting measure, respectively, is never entirely out of my consciousness. If the entire Accenture board assured me a $5 check was good I'd still ask for three pieces of ID. Getting dropped by Gillette is supposed to be a black mark on your permanent record? They're the ones who hired Woods to stand stock still in a commercial while cupping his hands to the bill of his cap on the grounds that this would make me want to shave with their product rather than Schick's. Th' fuck would I listen to them?
On the other hand, Frank, your paper does promise me it'll try to print the truth.