Sunday, November 13, 2011

Similarities in the Fall of Two Icons


It is a sadly familiar story.       

A man starts with little and rises to the top of his profession.   He becomes a national legend with record-breaking longevity in his field.    He is renowned for his power and good works.   He towers over the landscape, earning the admiration, affection, and love of many people he has never met.  By the time he reaches his 80s, he is an icon within his home region, where his success makes him a one-man economic powerhouse.   Monuments are named after him, and he seems untouchable. 

Less attractively, his triumphs over several decades seems to produce an arrogance and a sense of entitlement.   He ages in place to the point that his old friends have all died or fallen away, leaving him without any peer around him who will tell him he is wrong or is making a misjudgment.   He becomes so identified with the institution he has served that it appears to become difficult for him to distinguish between the interests of that institution and his own interests.    A political tone-deafness creeps in.   He may even want to establish a dynasty by trying to hang on long enough to hand over his job to his son.   Most unfortunately, he either cannot see or cannot address appropriately the terrible flaws of a close associate--a long-time friend whose crimes include an apparent predilection towards sexual abuse of minors--and the flaws of that close associate are central in causing the great man to fall.

As the news and commentary of the last several days have pounded in to us, this is the story of Joe Paterno, the head coach of the football team at Pennsylvania State University for 45 years until last week.   It is also the story of Ted Stevens, Alaska's U.S. Senator from 1968 until his departure following his defeat at the polls in 2008.   

There is more to say later about the similarities--and the obvious differences--between "JoePa" and "Uncle Ted."   The columnist Scott Ostler has already passed on a reader's quotation of F. Scott Fitzgerald:   "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy."

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