December 8, 2009
Tiger, Barack, and the Law of Transitivity
As a rule, the revelation that a married athlete (or actor, or rock star, or politician) has conducted extramarital affairs with bevy of "party girls" may titillate, but rarely has the power to shock. In those realms, these things happen. Entitled men. Willing women. Deceived wives. What's new?
So what is it about Tiger Woods that makes his cheating so different from the usual that ten days on, the nation is still discussing revelations of conquests, trysts, payoffs, and physical injuries inflicted by a golf club?
Sure, there's normal prurience at work. But mostly, we are interested because Tiger Woods, who may legitimately be the best golfer ever, had been turned into an all-purpose icon: a man of personal rectitude, a lovely smile, apparent openness; a family man, with a lovely wife and two adorable babies. And of course, he was our first living embodiment of the collective hope for racial reconciliation. Who knew that the early reports of his betrayed wife Elin swinging at him with a golf club constituted literal icon-smashing?
We are staring because we've been had. Betrayed. We see now that the image was all a fraud. The talent was real. But the things that made the public like Tiger personally -- the low-key demeanor, manners, and sweet smile of countless sports-page photos, magazine covers, political analogies, and most important, product endorsements, was an act. That would be betrayal enough. But it wasn't just Woods' act. The larger lesson here is about how much artifice -- sustained, deliberate deception -- goes into the construction of a public persona when there is profit to be made or power to be had.
Jack Shafer, the Slate media columnist, spells out how this transpired. In the beginning, Shafer notes, Woods was your normal young, single, randy, skirt-chasing, heterosexual athlete. Then, almost overnight, he became a golf phenom, and
... for business reasons -- Buick, Nike, Gatorade, Gillette, EA Sports, and Accenture being among them -- Woods decided to exfoliate from his public image all things base, carnal, and even personal.The Tiger Woods that was constructed for corporate consumption was spotless and smooth, an edgeless brand easily peddled to sheikhs and shakers.
Given how desperately we want to believe in a human god, it didn't take much peddling from Team Tiger for us to accept Woods as a modern deity. With every new tournament victory, every new product endorsement, his divinity grew. His marketers made him a symbol of tolerance and brotherhood, and his father, Earl Woods, spoke gibberish about his son being a creature of destiny. Getting married and having children only added to Woods' marketability. I'm divine and monogamous and the center of a happy nuclear family. And we ate it up. So now that the "real" Woods has been revealed ... we're embarrassed by the gap between who we believed Woods to be and who he really is.
The unusually sleazy reality, however true to our darker knowledge of human nature, is especially disappointing because of the wholesome image we've been sold for so long. "Modern deity" isn't much of an overstatement. Even now, the same huge corporate effort that went into creating the billion-dollar nice-guy persona is hard at work trying to keep it alive -- because if it dies, too many people stand to lose too much money.
Think about the heroic efforts to "save" Woods' marriage. In addition to her prenup -- which only "vests" after a certain amount of time, apparently the much-wronged wife will receive a huge payment -- $55 million, according to some reports -- to stay with him for another two years. That would explain why she hasn't exited stage right. And the millions reportedly paid to many among the text-message-wielding, semi-pro women involved suggests the magnitude of everyone's stake in reconstructing an image able to hawk corporate goods.
Nor was Woods' behavior unknown -- except to the public. In one instance reporters had photos of a "transgression"...committed in a church parking lot, no less. These journalists agreed to keep it secret -- if Tiger posed for a cover story at Men's Fitness Magazine -- a cover that would sell huge numbers. Normally Woods wouldn't have been available, since he had an exclusive contract with Conde Nast's Golf Digest. With full understanding of the situation, Conde Nast allowed the rival cover because he too profited from having Tiger remain an icon.
Note that this industry-wide coverup of Woods' cheating (and apparently his personal nastiness, arrogance, and general non-cuddly nature) is not a small, secret plot by dedicated fanatics. Rather, it is a set of interlocking self-interests manifested in sustaining the pristine image of this one sports icon to keep cash coming in.
But enough about Tiger the man, who is, after all, only a golfer. Let's move on to Tiger the metaphor. Because anyone with four functioning brain cells gets that if this comprehensive a charade can be sustained for a decade as Woods and those around him amassed billions, it can happen elsewhere. It can happen right in front of our eyes.
If I were watching the public's disgust with the newly revealed Tiger Woods from an office in the West Wing, I'd be concerned. Because Barack Obama is about as completely manufactured a political character as this nation has seen. His meteoric rise, without the inconvenience of a public record or accomplishments, and the public's willing suspension of critical evaluation of his résumé allowed his handlers and the media to project whatever they wanted to on his unfurrowed brow.
Ironically, the parallels have nothing to do with race. The Obama campaign did explicitly attempt to borrow the from the then-universal Tiger Woods appeal to allay any discomfort voters might have had with a mixed-race politician. They constructed a persona that would make the American electorate comfortable with a barely-known, first-term senator with a left wing voting record, a deliberately obscured personal and professional past, and no traditional qualifications for high office.
After a year in the spotlight, Barack Obama, hailed as a brilliant man and a creature of destiny who would heal us all, is himself falling rapidly to earth. (Thankfully, his family life remains above suspicion.) The flaws that were airbrushed out of the candidate photos are becoming glaringly obvious under day-to-day scrutiny of his public performance in the White House.
And while it doesn't matter if another athlete is an adulterer, it matters a lot if the president is revealed to be an inexperienced, excessively ideological, and weak man who is naïve about the world and uncomfortable exercising American power during a time of war. It matters if nothing in his training would have equipped the president to understand what it takes to stimulate job growth, or ameliorate a recession, or to end an overseas conflict successfully. It matters that he is uninterested in the science behind global warming -- and wishes to use the issue to amass power and reorder society. It matters that he has no interest in the construction of policy.
Ultimately, Woods is an exceptional golfer with a character problem. Barack Obama, by contrast, is not an exceptional, or even particularly competent, leader. But because so many politicians, interest groups and factions have an interest in his continued presence, no one is ready to reveal the man behind the curtain just yet.
But many voters from both the center and the far left who believed in the Obama magic are increasingly dismayed by watching the human god fall to earth. This is a major problem because, as Shafer notes, the impulse of the betrayed is to tear their fallen deities to shreds.