Follow the Leader

So now it’s Newt’s turn.

This year’s Republican presidential primary has resembled the Kentucky Derby, the initial leg of the horse racing Triple Crown: one and a quarter miles of break-neck competition, with countless lead changes preceding a final desperate sprint to the finish. Rarely do competitors lead from start to finish. Those who emerge quickly usually fade as the finish line draws near.

Early Leaders

Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum were viewed as potential early leaders, and they appeared to emerge well from the gate. Their perceived advantage proved illusory, however, and they quickly faded into the pack. The general feeling is that they have run their race and will not mount a credible challenge.

Rick Perry, the last candidate to the gate, then surged ahead. He was an early favorite and his campaign seemed to be gaining momentum as he began to separate from the pack. However, amidst criticism for softness on immigration issues, he stumbled badly at debates and quickly lost his lead.

Perry’s unexpected drop opened the door for a new candidate to emerge. Herman Cain, former chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, suddenly materialized atop polls. Cain used his business background to gain favor by preaching economic conservatism and proposing a 9-9-9 tax plan which some viewed as promising while others dismissed as impractical. While some were skeptical of his chances, others viewed him as the future of the Republican party and expected him to remain among the leaders for the balance of the race.

Then the mud began to fly.

Mud

There is one significant difference between horse race and presidential campaign. In horse racing, the leader avoids the constant bumps and collisions that inevitably occur when a group of strong, agile animals occupy limited space at high speeds. While trailing horses are subject to mud and dirt raised by the hooves of those before them, the leader can run unimpaired. There is no one to kick mud in its face.

Leading candidates in presidential races, on the other hand, attract mud. They are subject to scrutiny and become vulnerable targets because of their visibility. In presidential races it is the mud hurlers, and not the candidates, who are unimpaired. Thus, the candidate who emerges from the pack must be prepared to face challenges that his opponents may not.

Quite often, those challenges stem from the candidate’s past life. Offenses and indiscretions that may have otherwise remained forever buried suddenly emerge to sully the candidate’s reputation. When those offenses and indiscretions are of a sexual nature, they can destroy the candidate’s chances, as they did Gary Hart’s in 1988.

Soon after Cain’s surprising surge to the front, he was confronted with allegations of past sexual harassment of women and a decade-long extramarital affair. Cain has denied these allegations, essentially turning the issue into a he said/she said, she said, she said and she said verbal battle for the truth. Yesterday, Cain reportedly advised his staff that he was “reassessing” his campaign in light of this development. Unlike Bill Clinton, who overcame similar allegations when he was first elected president in 1992, Cain may abandon his pursuit of the presidency, essentially pulling up lame in the midst of the Presidential Derby.

Enter Newt

Cain’s recent drop in the polls has created a new perceived leader in the race: Newt Gingrich, the former GOP Speaker of the House. Despite obvious problems with a potential Gingrich presidency (President Newt? Really?), the new leader has an advantage that Cain lacked. Because of his visibility as Clinton’s principal congressional opponent during his presidency, Gingrich’s “dirty laundry,” including three marriages and a sanction by the House Ethics Committee for tax violations, has long been aired for all to see. Thus, it is unlikely that Gingrich’s campaign will be derailed by new allegations, such as those that plague Cain. The rehashing of “old news” is unlikely to impede Gingrich’s present momentum. What may impact his overall chances will be the assessment of his electability in the general election versus that of Mitt Romney, who has remained near the front of the pack during the entire race, but has been slowed by the perception that he is not far enough to the right to get his party’s full support.

So here we are. Halfway through the race, Gingrich appears to have a slight lead over Romney, with Cain and Perry falling back into the pack. Yet the race is far from over. By the time they reach the finish line the GOP candidates will be muddied, bruised and exhausted. It seems almost unfair that the winner will be then immediately thrust into a two-horse race with President Obama to determine the next leader of the free world.

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Heroes and Villains

“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

The line is from Christopher Nolan’s stylish 2008 film The Dark Knight. The accuracy of the statement was evidenced this week in the sporting world.

Joe Frazier died on Monday. The former world heavyweight champion was the embodiment of why boxing, despite its inherent brutality, was once considered a “gentleman’s sport.”

Frazier was not flashy. He was a hard-working, persistent pugilist, who attacked relentlessly with hooks to the head and body, tearing down defenses until opponents inevitably submitted. He is considered one of the greatest heavyweight champions despite successfully defending his title only four times.

In a sense, Frazier was on the wrong side of history. His name will forever be linked to that of Muhammad Ali because his career was largely defined by his three bouts with Ali, considered by boxing experts among the greatest fights ever staged. Frazier defeated Ali in the first of those bouts on March 8, 1971, a 15-round battle that saw Ali dropped to the canvas for the first time, suffering the first defeat of his professional career. Ali took their next two fights, including the brutal 1975 spectacle referred to as the “Thrilla in Manila” that saw Frazier, blinded by Ali’s repeated jabs, prevented by his corner from emerging for a fifteenth and final round.

The 1971 Frazier-Ali bout was deemed “The Fight of the Century,” one of the most anticipated boxing events ever. Ali, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, was criminally charged and convicted in 1967 for refusing induction into the U.S. armed forces (his conviction was eventually reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 28, 1971). Ali’s boxing license was suspended and he did not fight for more than three years. When Ali’s license was restored in late 1970, the stage was set for his 1971 bout with Frazier, a battle of undefeated champions in the prime of their careers.

Frazier lacked Ali’s flash and charisma. While Ali loudly proclaimed himself “the greatest of all time,” Frazier went quietly about his business of training and preparing for his next fight. He never attained the world-wide renown and adulation of Ali – yet many believe that Ali would not be Ali without Frazier.

Frazier retired from boxing in 1981 at the age of 37. His death was mourned by many who, like myself, grew up in the 1970’s and remember him as a quiet, proud man whose name and career were synonymous with professionalism. He is remembered fondly, particularly in his native Philadelphia, where he is considered a hero and community icon.

Contrast Frazier with Joe Paterno, iconic coach of the Penn State University football team.

For over six decades (four of them as head coach), Paterno had been the king of college football, overseeing one of the most successful programs in the country. Paterno was deemed an educator who valued sportsmanship and integrity more than his teams’ abundant success on the gridiron. At the age of 84, he was a beloved and revered figure in the sport, and the universal belief was that he would continue coaching until he decided it was time to walk away. When that time came, all assumed that he would depart the game with his head held high. His reputation and legacy were beyond reproach.

All that changed in the span of days.

Late last week, a grand jury indicted Paterno’s long-time friend and defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, charging him with the repeated and systematic sexual abuse of young boys on university grounds over several years. Further, two university officials, including the school’s athletic director, were also indicted based on the grand jury’s finding that they were aware of, yet ignored, Sandusky’s actions.

Paterno testified during the grand jury proceedings that he was made aware by a graduate assistant of a 2002 incident involving Sandusky and a 10-year old boy in the showers of the team’s football complex. The graduate assistant had witnessed the criminal act and notified Paterno, apparently believing that Paterno would contact the proper authorities. Paterno immediately brought the incident to the attention of the university’s athletic director, following school protocol that required notification of Paterno’s superiors.

However, neither Paterno nor anyone else at Penn State ever notified university police, which allowed Sandusky to continue his alleged pattern of abuse unabated for several additional years.

Paterno is not being targeted in the criminal investigation. Local authorities have stated that, by notifying his athletic director, he complied with his legal obligation under the circumstances.

Whether Paterno complied with his moral obligation, given the nature and severity of the act by Sandusky reported to him, has been openly debated for the past week. When the grand jury findings became public, pressure mounted on Paterno and the university’s president to resign or be stripped of their positions.

Earlier today, Paterno announced that he would retire at the end of this season, indicating that the effects of the child sex abuse scandal have been “overwhelming.” This evening, the university’s Board of Trustees terminated Paterno’s tenure as head coach, effective immediately.

And so ends the career of the man once deemed to embody all that was good about college football. He leaves no longer a hero, his legacy tainted by a scandal unlike any ever witnessed by the sport.

While Paterno is not a “villain” in the traditional sense, his public image has been forever altered. It is sad to think that he will be remembered not for the positives he brought to the sport over a span of 62 years, but for the sordid scandal that led to his departure.

Yet when one thinks of the abuse allegedly wrought upon young victims by Sandusky, and the realization that one call by Paterno to campus police might have prevented several of the assaults, it is difficult to remember Paterno in any other light.