By FRANK RICH — New York Times.
AS we say farewell to a dreadful year and decade, this much we can agree upon: The person of the year is not Ben Bernanke, no matter how insistently Time magazine tries to hype him into its pantheon. The Fed chairman was just as big a schnook as every other magical thinker in Washington and on Wall Street who believed that housing prices would go up in perpetuity to support an economy leveraged past the hilt. Unlike most of the others, it was Bernanke’s job to be ahead of the curve. Yet as recently as June of last year he could be found minimizing the possibility of a substantial economic downturn. And now we’re supposed to applaud him for putting his finger in the dike after disaster struck? This is defining American leadership down.
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.
People wanted to believe what they wanted to believe. Tiger’s off-the-links elusiveness was no more questioned than Enron’s impenetrable balance sheets, with their “special-purpose entities” named after “Star Wars” characters. Fortune magazine named Enron as America’s “most innovative company” six years in a row. In the January issue of Golf Digest, still on the stands, some of the best and most hardheaded writers in America offer “tips Obama can take from Tiger,” who is typically characterized as so without human frailties that he “never does anything that would make him look ridiculous.”
Perhaps the most conspicuous player in the Tiger hagiography business has been a company called Accenture, one of his lustrous stable of corporate sponsors. In a hilarious Times article, Brian Stelter described the extreme efforts this outfit is now making to erase its six-year association with its prized spokesman. Alas, the many billboards with slogans like “Go On. Be a Tiger” are not so easily dismantled, and collectors’ items like “Accenture Match Play Tiger Woods Caddy Bib” are a growth commodity on eBay.
From what I can tell, Accenture is a solid company. But the Daily News columnist Mike Lupica raised a good point when I spoke with him last week: “If Tiger Woods was so important to Accenture, how come I didn’t know what Accenture did when they fired him?” According to its Web site, Accenture is “a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company,” but who cared about any fine print? It was Tiger, and Tiger was it, and no one was to worry about the details behind the mutually advantageous image-mongering. One would like to assume that Accenture’s failure to see or heed any warning signs about a man appearing in 83 percent of its advertising is an anomalous lapse. One would like to believe that business and government clients didn’t hire Accenture just because it had Tiger’s imprimatur. But in a culture where so many smart people have been taken so often, we can’t assume anything.
As cons go, Woods’s fraudulent image as an immaculate exemplar of superhuman steeliness is benign. His fall will damage his family, closest friends, Accenture and the golf industry much more than the rest of us. But the syndrome it epitomizes is not harmless. We keep being fooled by leaders in all sectors of American life, over and over. A decade that began with the “reality” television craze exemplified by “American Idol” and “Survivor” — both blissfully devoid of any reality whatsoever — spiraled into a wholesale flight from truth.
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). It was exclusively “bad intelligence,” we’re now told, that pushed us into the fiasco. But contradictions to that “bad intelligence” were in plain sight during the run-up to the war — even sometimes in the press. Yet we wanted to suspend disbelief. Much of the country, regardless of party, didn’t want to question its leaders, no matter how obviously they were hyping any misleading shred of intelligence that could fit their predetermined march to war. It’s the same impulse that kept many from questioning how Mark McGwire’s and Barry Bonds’s outlandishly cartoonish physiques could possibly be steroid-free.
In the political realm, our bipartisan credulousness has also been on steroids in this decade, even by our national standards. Many Democrats didn’t want to see the snake-oil salesman in John Edwards, blatant as his “Two America” self-contradictions were if you cared merely to look at him on YouTube. Republicans incessantly fell for family values preacher politicians like David Vitter, John Ensign and Larry Craig. Fred Thompson was seen by many, in the press as well as his party, as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Karl Rove was widely hailed as a mastermind who would assemble a permanent Republican majority. Bernie Kerik was considered a plausible secretary of homeland security. Eliot Spitzer was viewed as a crusader of uncompromising principle.
But these scam artists are pikers next to the financial hucksters. I’m not just talking about Bernie Madoff and Enron’s Ken Lay, but about those titans who legally created and sold the securities that gamed and then wrecked the system. You’d think after Enron’s collapse that financial leaders and government overseers would question the contents of “exotic” investments that could not be explained in plain English. But only a few years after Enron’s very public and extensively dissected crimes, the same bankers, federal regulatory agencies and securities-rating companies were giving toxic “assets” a pass. We were only too eager to go along for the lucrative ride until it crashed like Tiger’s Escalade.
After his “indefinite break” from golf, Woods will surely be back on the links once the next celebrity scandal drowns his out. But after a decade in which two true national catastrophes, a wasteful war and a near-ruinous financial collapse, were both in part byproducts of the ease with which our leaders bamboozled us, we can’t so easily move on.
This can be seen in the increasingly urgent political plight of Barack Obama. Though the American left and right don’t agree on much, they are both now coalescing around the suspicion that Obama’s brilliant presidential campaign was as hollow as Tiger’s public image — a marketing scam designed to camouflage either his covert anti-American radicalism (as the right sees it) or spineless timidity (as the left sees it). The truth may well be neither, but after a decade of being spun silly, Americans can’t be blamed for being cynical about any leader trying to sell anything. As we say goodbye to the year of Tiger Woods, it is the country, sad to say, that is left mired in a sand trap with no obvious way out.