The past year was memorable for many reasons, not the least being the fall from grace of formerly deemed estimable gentlemen, whose admittedly admirable activities were cited as an excuse to mitigate their offenses.
Recent examples: There is no question but that efforts have been made to excuse the legendary Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno (reviled for his dilatory, if not obfuscating, handling of information concerning the alleged predatory activities of his long time assistant coach, serial child molester, Jerry Sandusky), because Paterno ran a relatively clean football program for many years (especially compared to others), and particularly because of his mega contributions to the reputation and solvency of Penn State University, which named its library in his honor. If he had not died, he might well have been prosecuted for obstruction of justice. Newspaper articles defending him were titled "Joe Paterno Was Made A Scapegoat," "We Won't Forget Paterno," etc. His family has contested the charges against him as the result of "raw speculation and unsupported opinion."
Or how about the bicyclist, Lance Armstrong, especially admired because of his recovery from cancer, whose illegal doping enabled him to set cycling records and to amass a fortune, who constantly lied and attacked his accusers, and who has been defended and praised in the press because he had established a successful cancer charity, Livestrong (from which he has resigned), which raised some $350 million dollars to fund research? Exposed as a fraud in his Oprah Winfrey confession, he apparently faces extraordinary lawsuits from his team sponsors among others. His major sponsor, Nike, has cancelled its contract with him.
Greg Mortenson, author of the highly profitable best seller, Three Cups of Tea, which made him a humanitarian folk hero, brought millions of dollars in donations to his charity, Central Asia Institute, and benefitted him with huge book royalties and lecture fees, is allegedly a fraud. While his charity unquestionably rendered valuable services in an impoverished area, according to a 60 Minutes report, notably false were his heart-warming tales of how simple mountain villagers in Korphe, Pakistan, saved his life after he was injured during a perilous decent of K-2, the world's highest peak, how he returned their kindness by returning to build a school, and how he was subsequently kidnapped for eight days by the Taliban. Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock investigated, resulting in an order requiring Mortenson to repay his foundation more than $1 million as restitution, and further requiring him to disassociate himself completely from the charity he founded.
It should be recognized that in many cases the good the accused accomplished was directly associated with his predatory activities — the former being unquestionably a factor facilitating to the latter. In Armstrong's case, for example, his racing, business activities and charitable foundation were inextricably intertwined, the same apparently was done for Mortenson.
A somewhat similar example (although no laws were broken) is the General David Petraeus affair. He was a revered five-star general, who led us effectively in two wars, served as a presidential adviser, considered a potential presidential candidate, and for 14 months was director of the CIA. An examination of his career shows that he preened on his accomplishments, courted adulation and recognition, before the exposure of his adulterous affair with his fourth biographer, Paula Broadwell, who glorified him in what has been called hagiographic terms. Some have expressed surprise that he resigned over this incident (perhaps because it offended his pride). Similar failings (alleged or actual) have not diminished high regard for Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton, and even Martin Luther King, Jr. Petraeus has now rebounded and accepted a lucrative position as Chairman of the newly created KKR Global Institute of the Kohlberg, Kraus and Roberts Company investment firms.
Robert Gates, the retired Secretary of Defense, is quoted in New York Magazine as saying (with regard to the General Petraeus scandal) that "there is something about a sense of entitlement and of having great power that skews people's judgment, …"
In the words of New York Magazine columnist, Frank Rich, referring to the scandals of the Catholic Church, Major League Baseball, the misadventures of John Edwards and Tiger Woods; and matters such as those discussed above: "Our serial susceptibility to bogus heroes and their hoaxes remains undiminished. It's as if there's something in the national DNA that makes us suspend disbelief once our icons are anointed."
Perhaps the problem is that these misbehavers seek complete absolution for their transgressions, rather than citing their admittedly laudatory efforts in other areas as mitigating (rather than absolving) factors.•