WHY WE LOVE IT WHEN OUR ICONS FALTER

Ihave been trying to come up with an allegory about fame, one which captures America’s love/hate relationship with it. Here is what I’ve come up with. Balloons.

Think about it. When we are children and we get a balloon, all we want to do is make it bigger, to blow in more air and watch it fly up and away.

Then, at some point — perhaps our teenage years — when we get a balloon, all we want to do is pop it. We poke it with a pencil. We jab it with a stick. And when it bursts we jump back, surprised but delighted with the destruction.

Last week, two well-known balloons got popped. Martha Stewart and Sammy Sosa, the former for allegedly cheating with her money, the latter for cheating with his bat. And once again, you could almost sense the glee with which their deflation was received.

“Good, I’m glad she got it” was the general reaction of the anti-Stewart crowd. “She’s so smug . . . she’s so rich.” One jokester on Comedy Central said Stewart faced huge fines and jail time for the crime of being “eminently unlikable.”

As for Sosa, well, his corked bat fiasco brought out all kinds of critics.
“Finally an all-time great con artist has been exposed,” wrote one sports writer. David Letterman offered a top 10 list of Sosa excuses, including,
“U.N. weapons inspectors looked at my bat and found nothing.”

It didn’t matter that Stewart professed her innocence or that Sosa offered an apology and an explanation, words that people inclined to like them might find perfectly acceptable. Few of us bit. They were big and they were powerful. Their comeuppance seemed, in this age of the daily fallen hero, only a matter of time.

The false idols

What fascinates me is the speed with which we, the American public, seem to swing from blame to forgiveness, from adulation to accusation. We build them up. We knock them down. We build them up again. Michael Jackson is misunderstood; Michael Jackson should be ashamed of himself. Robert Downey Jr. is a disgrace; Robert Downey Jr. has tuned his life around. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a liar; Hillary Rodham Clinton is a survivor.

You would think we might learn from the endless disappointments. But no, we continue to delight in new overnight sensations. We are fascinated by how high the balloon will fly. Look at that Ruben kid from “American Idol.” We couldn’t wait to turn him into a superstar. He has been everywhere, from the morning shows to the “Tonight Show” to halftime of the NBA playoffs.

Yet, if Ruben were suddenly arrested, the hammer would come down, hard, the same way it is now on Stewart and Sosa. We act as if we’re entitled to our anger, because they all got popular on our attention.

The inside information

So Martha Stewart is not loathed because of what she allegedly did — selling stock — but because she had access to information we didn’t. And why did she? Because she was rich and famous. And who made her so? We did. So she somehow betrayed us.

The same goes for Sosa. Although he said he only used a corked bat during batting practice, and although 76 of his bats were tested and all came back clean, nonetheless, many of us assumed he was lying and had used illegal bats before. He should be doubly ashamed, we felt. Why? Because he, too, was rich and famous. And why? Because we made him so.

We build them up. We knock them down. It has become a sport in this country. Who’s hot? Who’s not?

In the end, this speaks to a general emptiness in our lives. The people I find least interested in O.J. Simpson-like hype are the people who are quietly tending to the small details of their existence, nurturing their children, tending to their ill or wandering the globe just looking around.

These people don’t need others’ rises and falls to fill up the day. They are clueless about the Martha and Sammy stuff. They seem astonished people spend so much time on it.

I don’t know about you, but given the choice, I aspire to be more like them.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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