Sunday, February 12, 2012

Our Flawed Heroes

First the Sandusky scandal , then the revelations of former intern Mimi Alford, and now the passing of legendary singer Whitney Houston under somewhat mysterious circumstances. What do all three situations have in common? They all demonstrate how tragically flawed a hero can be.

Joe Paterno's legacy has suffered greatly from the revelations involving Sandusky. At the very least Paterno was haplessly ignorant of things involving his once-trusted assistant coach, at worst he knew things that might have made him culpable. But regardless, the scandal will be more than a footnote on his otherwise great and memorable career.

Mimi Alford's allegations involving President John F. Kennedy are hardly ground-breaking, insofar as JFK's infidelities are well-known, but they paint a darker picture of the man, they suggest his personal flaws in this regard are something more then mere peccadilloes. And for a President still fondly remembered by many, still written of in laudatory terms, they force a reassessment for future historians.

Whitney Houston's death at such a young age--forty-eight--brings back to the public discourse her sad history of abuse and drug use. As of now, the cause of her death has not been made public, but speculation is unsurprisingly focusing on substance abuse, especially given her appearance and actions on the days previous to her death.

All three--Paterno, Kennedy, and Houston--are larger than life public figures. Sports, politics, and entertainment--the trifecta of public spectacles--depend on publicity, on fandom, and on hero worship as a means to their various ends: filling seats at games, creating policy, and selling music/movies. We ask for these heroes and we receive them. And to be fair, the heroes deliver. They really do. Who can argue against the accomplishments of these three, against their talent and hard work?

In the balance, none will be found wanting in my opinion. Even with the footnotes and scandals, all three will continue to be recognized for what they did, moreso than who they were or what they failed to do. And that's the way of things in most cases. Few real-life heroes can truly measure up to their own legends.

And in the classic sense, to be a hero is to be flawed, as a matter of course. The "tragic hero" is really the hero, since time immemorial. As Aristotle noted, the proper course for the tragic hero is from good to bad. The hero's tragic flaw--be it trust, appetite, dependence, or something else--only becomes apparent after their heroic character is established by deed. In fiction, the pattern is easy to see, from Medea, to Hamlet, to even Willie Loman. In real life it happens in the same way. Yet where we easily accept the fictional hero as a hero still, we are often less forgiving of those who actually lived and breathed, perhaps unfairly forgetting that we are all flawed in some ways.

Still, there are those rare heroes in life that defy the pattern, that seem unblemished by a tragic flaw. Few and far between, they are. In the United States, the principal example is George Washington, of course. And a few others, I think, including my personal favorite Davy Crockett. But the expectation that people can or should live up to such a standard is unrealistic. And unfair.

Whitney Houston has passed away. She gave joy to millions, inspired them, entertained them, and--in a real sense--loved them. Joe Paterno stood on the summit of college sports, demanding the best from his players on the field, in the classroom, and in life. JFK changed America for the better, ushering in a new era of civil rights while standing firm on the things they made the nation great.

All three deserve to be lauded for what they did; they were heroes, in every sense of the word.

Cheers, all.


  1. i am appaulded to read joe paterno's name in this column...joe paterno has been villainized, when the true villains were his superiors who failed to perform their duties...

  2. Thanks for the comment, but I don't think I villainized Joe Paterno. And I don't think the three situations ate the same, at all, aside from all three involving people that were idolized by many through much of their careers and people that had scandals of one form or another that tarnished their names to some degree.

    I'm not interested in arguing about Paterno, regardless. Some think he was treated unfairly, some think he wasn't held to account. Either way, the scandal has attached itself to his name and has influenced the public perception of the man.

    But as I said, "Joe Paterno stood on the summit of college sports, demanding the best from his players on the field, in the classroom, and in life." That's my opinion. Am I being unfair?