The transgression of a celebrity can be worth a thousand sermons. A lot of the gossip on the Internet and in the tabloids is cheap and irresponsible, but accurate dishing on the failures of the rich and famous usually has a bracing effect on society.
No longer are the prudes limited to the pulpit, the classroom or the dinner table. The young as well as the old find instruction in the consequences of the behavior of Tiger Woods. It's impossible not to feel his pain of a suddenly lonely life, of golfing on the driving range at night, before supping on cold cereal. Nobody appointed Tiger a role model, but he enjoyed fame and glamour as the refreshing antidote to the bad-boy athletes high on steroids and ego. He enjoyed his carefully cultivated family-man image.
Santa knows who's been naughty and who's been nice, but even Santa would find it hard to find out who's been a hypocrite. Hypocrisy, as depicted in the Middle Ages, is invisible to all but God. The hypocrite has been depicted as both the archer and the mark. Mastery in sport or work does not necessarily translate into mastery of the self.
With only a touch of irony, columnist Frank Rich observes in the New York Times that Tiger ought be Time's Man of the Year because he's emblematic of America's ability to mythologize heroes (and leaders) while avoiding even a fleeting skepticism of what's beneath the surface of our personal biases. This observation is less about morality than about habits of mind forged on the left and the right by political spin.
"Though the American left and right don't agree on much, they are both now coalescing around the suspicion that Barack 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 analogy is inexact because Mr. Obama's political contradictions have never gone unnoticed. They were all a matter of public record and have been amply scrutinized by his critics. He was never in hiding from either the left or the right. The right was quick to pick up on his relationship with William Ayres, the unrepentant leader of the radical and violent Weather Underground. Even though he was not exactly a savory acquaintance for a man with presidential ambitions, Mr. Obama never seemed to see anything wrong with the connection. He didn't seem to understand what everyone else saw as unsavory in his having sat in the pew to listen to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright's profane and racist rants over two decades.
The left was aware of Mr. Obama's timidity in his early campaigning for the White House and was never quite sure he was one of them. What they knew was he could be a winner.
The contradictions the voters see in Mr. Obama now were real, not the work of spinmeisters. They were tied together by the president's narcissistic belief in himself, which he imagined transcended politics. His prolific use of the personal pronoun bears this out. He believes in his own sincerity. For a while, we did, too.
"Every man alone is sincere," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. "At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins." Before his entrance into the major leagues, the president was virtually a man alone on a private stage. When his audience grew larger, he still believed he could end the rancor in Washington and inspire a new bipartisanship. But sincerity moved to hypocrisy when that stage got crowded, and he was called on to deliver satisfactory answers to an unmanageable audience. Smooth rhetoric covers a multitude of rough edges until the rhetoric must produce legislation.
During the campaign, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, demonstrated a much greater understanding of Washington than his unseasoned opponent did, but experience didn't count for much in 2008. When the economy crashed and Mr. McCain suggested calling off a scheduled debate to stay in Washington to study what to do about it, he was mocked for lacking leadership. At the least, he showed that he knew what he didn't know. Mr. Obama still hasn't learned that.
The polls show that Americans no longer believe the president's rhetoric over health care. The president's approval ratings continue to tank. Left, right and independent men and women are dismayed. Only he sounds like a true believer in himself, that he's delivering what's good for us. Describing Obamacare as genuine reform, he told us that "the American people will have the [health care] they deserve." A cynic would say he's right about that.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.